Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, speaks during a press conference at the Capitol on Monday, April 4, 2022. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
Discord between Pennsylvania House leaders on Monday stalled a special session on legal relief for adult survivors of childhood sexual assault before it began.
And the unlikely compromise that put a five-term Democrat in control of the nominally Republican-majority chamber appeared in danger of falling apart as a key ally called on newly elected House Speaker Mark Rozzi to resign after saying he had reneged on a vow to become an independent.
After several hours of caucusing on rules for the special session, Rozzi said late Monday that the parties were too far apart to advance the constitutional amendment that would create a retroactive opening for sexual abuse survivors to sue their attackers. Rozzi did not delve into the specifics of the impasse.
Rozzi called off two additional session days scheduled this week and said he would instead appoint a bipartisan working group to find a way forward.
“Make no mistake — we must pass Statute of Limitations reform,” Rozzi said in a video statement. “But we also must fix the workings of our government and find a way to move forward as Pennsylvanians for the betterment of Pennsylvania.
“History will not judge us based on how many Democratic Party wins or Republican Party wins we achieve, but we will be judged based on what we did for the children of this Commonwealth,” Rozzi said.
Gov. Tom Wolf called for the special session of the General Assembly on Friday after reaching an agreement in August with Republican lawmakers to prioritize the long-delayed constitutional amendment to give sexual abuse survivors a retroactive opening to sue their attackers.
Republican leaders in both the House and Senate immediately objected to the special session, saying the abuse survivors’ amendment shouldn’t be prioritized over amendments they want, such as voter ID, election audits and regulatory review.
Rozzi said in a statement Friday that he would hold up all other legislation until the survivors’ amendment had passed, prompting House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, to say that if Rozzi could not work in a bipartisan manner, he should consider stepping aside.
House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said the caucus was disappointed in the Republicans’ failure to put politics aside and move the amendment ahead.
“The General Assembly has a unique opportunity to stand firmly on the side of survivors of child sexual abuse and to start the session off with a genuine show of bipartisanship. The time to act is now,” Reigelman said.
The amendment must be approved by both chambers – the second of two constitutionally required votes – to appear on the May 16 primary election ballot for approval by voters.
Rozzi, who was reelected as a Democrat in November, and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, championed the amendment through two sessions only to have an error in Wolf’s administration set the effort back to square one in 2021. Both Rozzi and Gregory are, themselves, survivors of childhood sexual assault.
As the House ran down the clock on a leadership impasse Jan. 3, Gregory and House Republican Whip Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, brokered a deal with Rozzi and Republican leaders to make him speaker.
He was elected the first Democrat turned independent speaker in Pennsylvania House history by a 115-85 vote.
But in a publicly-circulated letter Monday, Gregory said Rozzi admitted to him over the weekend that he was only thinking about switching, saying that his words contradicted a commitment Rozzi had made to Gregory, the House and the people of Pennsylvania.
“The bonds of trust between friends – as close as you and I have been – are now broken,” Gregory said.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Gregory later said he felt betrayed in the same way as when he was assaulted as a child, and that he was calling out Rozzi to take back his voice as he had when he ended his silence about his abuse.
Gregory said he objected to the survivors’ amendment being packaged with the other Republican-backed amendments in order for it to be passed.
“What they’re trying to do, in my opinion, is again use victims as pawns in a political game, and I’m not going to play that,” Gregory said.
He said he fears that the survivors’ amendment could again fail if it appears on a ballot with other proposed amendments.
“I want the voters of Pennsylvania to see one question on the ballot for those people who have waited, and then got socked in the gut, and had to wait two more years,” Gregory said
The House convened at noon on Monday and Cutler made several parliamentary inquiries about the rules to govern the special session, noting that after electing a speaker, the chamber had not completed its reorganization process.
The House then went into recess and both parties went into caucus, with the recess extended several times before Rozzi and leaders on both sides issued statements about the impasse.
The state Senate convened Monday but took no floor votes. The voter ID, election audit and regulatory review amendments were voted out of the Senate State Government Committee.
People can find their local sexual assault resource center via a toll-free hotline at 1-888-772-7227 or online at https://pcar.org/help-pa/locations
If a person suspects a child is being abused, call ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.
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