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Pennsylvania Republicans go big on culture wars while Biden pushes big spending

Transgender girls in sports. Abortion. Voting laws. Vaccine passports. Those are some topics attracting the most vocal attention from GOP lawmakers.

Supporters of then-President Donald Trump rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on Jan. 5 to protest Congress' planned certification of Joe Biden's election win the next day. Election law is one of the issues that have come to blend longstanding political disputes with new grievance as Pennsylvania Republicans give cultural fights their most vocal attention.
Supporters of then-President Donald Trump rally on the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on Jan. 5 to protest Congress' planned certification of Joe Biden's election win the next day. Election law is one of the issues that have come to blend longstanding political disputes with new grievance as Pennsylvania Republicans give cultural fights their most vocal attention.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Transgender girls in sports. Abortion. Voting laws. Vaccine passports.

Those are some topics attracting the most vocal attention from Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers, underscoring the extent to which the post-Trump GOP is energized by cultural fights amid Democratic control in Washington.

Consider recent efforts in Harrisburg.

On April 5, Republicans introduced legislation to ban transgender students from competing in women’s sports. On April 8, a GOP-led state House committee held the first in a series of hearings on abortion. Another House committee held its ninth hearing this year on election rules, a series born out of lawmakers’ desire to overhaul the system former President Donald Trump targeted in his false claims of a stolen election.

It’s all unfolding as President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress try to sell voters on their $1.9 trillion stimulus package — and follow it with jobs, climate, and infrastructure proposals that could top $3 trillion more. Congressional Republicans have done little to mobilize against the stimulus, with many instead emphasizing the border crisis and raising alarm after Dr. Seuss’ estate stopped publishing some books featuring racist and offensive imagery.

For a fractured party still trying to find its way after Trump’s presidency, the activity in Harrisburg suggests that, at least in Pennsylvania, Republicans are most comfortable leaning into divisive social issues — some old, some new, and some, such as voting laws, that have come to blend long-standing political disputes with new cultural grievances.

“You’ve seen that in the GOP for a while now ... the cultural issues are taking center stage,” said Neil Newhouse, a longtime Virginia-based GOP pollster. Trump had an innate sense of what resonated with Republican voters, Newhouse said: “He was sensitive to what they’re concerned about and he got out in front of them.”

» READ MORE: At schools, airports, and mushroom farms, Democrats sell voters on Biden’s stimulus

The focus on hot-button culture issues in some ways contrasts the party’s response to the last Democratic president. While much of the backlash to President Barack Obama was intertwined with race — Trump, among many others, spread false claims about Obama’s birthplace — the GOP also rallied against the cost of his economic stimulus package and the government expansion in his health-care law.

Now, Republicans are most animated by cultural issues, strategists in both parties agree. Many aspects of Biden’s early tenure — free spending with little concern for deficits, giving Americans money to prop up the economy — were also embraced by Trump.

“If you think about what drove support for Trump, it’s kind of racked up in status threat and other kinds of feeling of losing ground, of being sort of under assault,” said Anna Greenberg, a Washington-based Democratic pollster. “Whether it’s by immigrants or minorities or feminists … all of these issues are kind of related to each other.”

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) gave voice to that sentiment Wednesday, echoing the rhetoric often espoused by white nationalists during a subcommittee hearing. “For many Americans,” he said, “what seems to be happening ... is we’re replacing national-born American, native-born Americans to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation.”

» READ MORE: Scott Perry is the most loved and hated congressman in Pennsylvania

Republicans argue that it’s Democrats who are pushing culture and conflict — by branding conservatives as racist and pressuring businesses to take liberal stands.

Not all Pennsylvania Republicans support the latest legislative initiatives. Neither state House Speaker Bryan Cutler nor Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff appeared at a news conference on transgender athletes, and one of the bill’s sponsors said party leadership hasn’t committed to backing it. Similar legislation, which proponents say protects women’s sports and detractors call cruel to transgender children, has been introduced in 31 states and signed into law in some, according to the ACLU, which opposes the bills.

GOP lawmakers across the country have been unable to identify local examples in which trans participation in sports resulted in competitive disadvantages. They frequently cite a case in Connecticut.

Pennsylvania House GOP leaders say their top priorities are economic recovery and government reform. The House passed legislation this month that supporters said would protect businesses from “frivolous” lawsuits over coronavirus exposure. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation last year, saying it would invite “the potential for carelessness and a disregard for public safety.”

And following last year’s battle with Wolf over pandemic business restrictions, the legislature passed a constitutional amendment that will appear on the May 18 primary ballot asking voters to rein in the governor’s emergency authority.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said the caucus is focused on passing legislation “that provides for our economic recovery, protects families, and provides government reform for Pennsylvania taxpayers.”

“These main priorities are what we are hearing from our constituents, businesses, and stakeholders as necessary to get Pennsylvania back on track after more than a year of unilateral economic shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and government authority run amok,” he said.

» READ MORE: A rough vaccine rollout has even Democrats turning on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf

But even the pandemic response has taken on cultural overtones, especially when it comes to wearing masks. The latest twist in the COVID-19 culture wars emerged this spring as Republicans in Pennsylvania and elsewhere launched something of a preemptive strike against any efforts by governments or businesses to require proof of vaccination to participate in everyday activities.

Wolf has said that he is not considering a state vaccine requirement and that he doesn’t see a need to intervene with such private-sector decisions. But multiple Republican state senators nevertheless introduced legislation prohibiting vaccine passports. The Biden administration has also ruled out federal vaccine passports.

Still, state Republicans are pushing forward.

“There is no way any government should be asking its own citizens to reveal personal health information,” State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York) said earlier this month.

While the pandemic ushered in new culture wars, the old ones are still going strong.

Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would add new abortion restrictions, including prohibiting the procedure after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually occurs about six to eight weeks’ gestation — which can be before women know they are pregnant. Under current state law, a pregnant person can get an abortion through 24 weeks, or later in the case of a medical emergency. Wolf would almost certainly veto the legislation.

The House Health Committee used a hearing earlier this month to probe the state Department of Health’s oversight of abortions for minors, who under state law must receive written permission from a parent or guardian to undergo the procedure.

“Certainly the last thing I want to see is for Pennsylvania to see another Gosnell case,” State Rep. Kathy Rapp (R., Warren), the committee chair, said during the hearing. She was referring to Kermit Gosnell, the former West Philadelphia abortion doctor convicted in 2013 of murdering three babies who were born alive during illegal late-term abortions.

» READ MORE: Fact-checking false claims about Pennsylvania’s presidential election by Trump and his allies

Perhaps the most closely watched debate in Harrisburg is over voting and election laws, a long-running issue entwined with questions of race and discrimination — and which has become another defining issue on the right amid Trump’s false claims of massive fraud.

The latest flash point came this month when Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game from Atlanta after Georgia Republicans enacted a sweeping new voting law. On Wednesday, hundreds of businesses and corporate executives signed a statement that broadly opposed new voting restrictions.

In Pennsylvania, dozens of GOP state lawmakers supported Trump’s effort to overturn Biden’s victory, and eight of the state’s nine Republican members of the U.S. House voted to do so hours after a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Since then, Republican-led committees have spent months reviewing the state’s election code, hearing testimony from experts, county administrators, and elections officials from other states. State Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), chairman of the House Government Committee, said after this month’s hearing that his goal is to “make Pennsylvania’s voting as easy as possible but hard to cheat.”

He pointed to a Kentucky election law passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and signed by the state’s Democratic governor as a model.

“Kentucky shows that election reform can and should be a bipartisan endeavor: expanding voter access while streamlining administration and protecting election integrity,” Grove said.

It remains to be seen what legislation party leaders will ultimately support. But there are signs that some favor a more Trumpian approach. A group of GOP lawmakers met privately this month with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to discuss election and immigration policy, the Penn Capital-Star website reported.

Kobach helped lead Trump’s commission investigating his claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election. It disbanded in 2018, having found no evidence to substantiate the claims.