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Harrisburg takes a step to the right

Despite the election of progressive Tom Wolf as governor, changes in state Senate leadership signal a more conservative Legislature.

Pennsylvania Senator Jake Corman. (CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News)
Pennsylvania Senator Jake Corman. (CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-News)Read moreCHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-New

ABOUT NOON yesterday, I'm standing outside the Senate Majority Caucus Room just off the Capitol Rotunda as Republican senators inside cast secret ballots to change their leadership by ousting Chester's Dominic Pileggi.

Staff from a nearby upscale (and excellent, by the way) restaurant, Mangia Qui, noisily roll a hand cart down the mosaic-tiled hallway.

On the cart is a large, whole fish.

I tell a colleague it's probably for a retiring senator on the Legislature's last day of the year, a little going-away luncheon.

He replies, "Just so we don't see a horse head rolled down the hall . . . for a going-away of a different sort."

Such is the gallows/mob humor that often shadows much of what goes on in Harrisburg.

What went on yesterday was the culmination of a couple of years of inside animus between Pileggi, majority leader since 2006, and some more-conservative senators, including Senate President Joe Scarnati of faraway Brockway in northwestern Pennsylvania, population 2,054.

This quiet unease got gassed and lit in late September.

That's when renegade Republican newcomer Sen. Scott Wagner of York County told Pileggi in what became a public letter that he was a roadblock to Republican progress and shouldn't be leader anymore.

Now he's not. Now what?

The new majority boss, Sen. Jake Corman of Centre County, is described as "maybe only a tick or two to the right of Pileggi" but more willing to front a conservative agenda, especially, for example, on privatizing state stores.

Also moving up is Sen. Pat Browne of Lehigh County, an accountant and lawyer replacing Corman as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a vital post come budget time. He, too, is regarded as less than far right.

But make no mistake, the Senate now joins the House in leadership likely to support conservative policy and oppose progressive tax and spending plans expected from Gov.-elect Tom Wolf.

And Wagner's at the heart of that.

He's a wealthy businessman and first-year senator who recently said he wants to bring a baseball bat to the Senate to get things done.

After yesterday's leadership vote, he said that when a business gets stagnant "you have to change your management team."

He said Republicans will have a plan in place by January.

Pushed for specifics, Wagner said, "I'd love to see the electric bill for this building [the Capitol]," adding he's for saving taxpayers money and downsizing, including cutting some of the Legislature's 2,600 staff members.

Asked about the GOP working with fellow York Countian Wolf, he said, "We don't have a revenue problem . . . we have a spending problem."

Translation: "Don't count me in. I don't care what county he's from."

In all of this there is bad news for moderates and worse news for Philadelphia unless there is more to come.

Like what, you may ask?

Well, like the 20 Democrats left in the 50-member Senate reaching across the aisle to, let's say, five moderate Republicans to join forces on at least some issues.

This could create a 25-25 tie, which could be broken by the Senate's presiding officer, who will be incoming Democratic Lt. Gov. - and Philly state Senator for as long as he holds onto his seat - Mike Stack.

Philly Sen. Vincent Hughes, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, says that even though leadership has been "seized by the Ted Cruz of the Pennsylvania Senate, Scott Wagner," there's interest in coalition-building.

"We know there are individuals in their [GOP] caucus who know they need to govern with Tom Wolf," Hughes said.

So we'll see.

We'll see if Democrats can make themselves relevant. We'll see if Team Wolf can work with conservatives.

And I'll keep an eye out for who's sending whom whole fish or horse heads.