HARRISBURG - With major bills hanging in the balance, including one that would expand access to government records, the state legislature is hurtling into a frenetic week tomorrow severely pressed for time and, in the case of the House of Representatives, hobbled by strife.
The big question remains: Can lawmakers - particularly Democrats, who control the House by a single vote - complete debate on bills that have lingered in legislative limbo by Wednesday, when the Senate breaks for the next month?
"We can't play guessing games about what may or may not happen," said Tom Andrews, spokesman for House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene). "But we are gearing up for a full session next week."
Key to what happens next is whether the 12 House members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who walked off the job Thursday to protest inaction on gun-control legislation, return to their seats to help get open-records and other key bills passed.
To add to the atmosphere of uncertainty, many of those members - all Democrats from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas - are scheduled to leave Wednesday for Arkansas for a convention of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
Andrews would not say yesterday whether DeWeese, who must sign off on his members' travel, had approved the Black Caucus' trip. He referred questions to the Black Caucus' chairman, Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware).
Kirkland did not return calls.
One of the most closely watched items on next week's calendar is a bill to widen the state's open-records law. Several incarnations of the bill have been bandied about for months, but the two chambers are finally close to a compromise.
Still, time is running out for lawmakers intent on passing open records as part of a promise that 2007 will be the year of reform in the Capitol.
Situation in flux
As it stands, the House will be making amendments to the bill tomorrow. It will likely be sent Tuesday to the Senate, where it is expected to be further changed, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester).
The bill will then be sent back to the House on Wednesday at the earliest. If the House agrees with the Senate's changes, it could be sent to Gov. Rendell for his signature.
If not, lawmakers face the very likely scenario of running out of time.
"At this point, the situation in the House is so unstable that making a prediction would be folly," Arneson said.
Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery), cochair of a commission created this year to examine legislative reforms, said the House and the Senate were "very, very close" to agreement on a final open-records bill.
"I'm optimistic," Shapiro said when asked whether a new open-records law would be approved this year.
But stealing the focus from open records is a sudden move by House Democrats to push through legislation this week that would implement a portion of Rendell's plan to fund health care for the uninsured.
Why the rush?
House Minority Leader Sam Smith last week called the push for health care an unnecessary distraction, and pointed out that such a significant bill should not be rushed to a vote.
"Why they would let open records potentially fall through the cracks . . . I don't know," Smith said Thursday, after a vote on the open-records bill was derailed by the Legislative Black Caucus' walkout.
Still, if House Democrats are serious about passing Rendell's health-care bill, they will need the support of the Black Caucus.
At least 12 of the caucus' House members requested a leave last week, and Kirkland's office confirmed that more than a half dozen caucus members are scheduled to travel to Little Rock on Wednesday.
Their absence could spell doom for the Democratic push for a health-care bill in the House.
Andrews, DeWeese's spokesman, said he was hopeful that by Wednesday, "the issues will be such that we'll have bipartisan support."
If not, Andrews said, any business not completed this year will be taken up in January.
"At the end of the day, the [2007-08] session does not end until Nov. 30, 2008," he said