Top Republican on Senate chaos: ‘Today we saw what happens when rules aren’t followed’

President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, speaks at a press conference Wednesday after a vote on General Assistance turned into a no-holds barred fight over Senate rules. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Hours after a partisan shouting match broke out on the floor of the state Senate, Republicans who control the chamber said that budget negotiations were “at a standstill.”

They laid the blame at the feet of Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who they said failed to enforce parliamentary rules against members of his own party.

“Today the floor of the Senate was ambushed and hijacked,” Senate Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said. “Today we saw what happens when rules aren’t followed. Chaos takes over.”

Scarnati took the rare step on Wednesday of taking the gavel from Fetterman, who serves as the body’s president and presiding officer.

Democrats storm off the floor as Senate sends bill eliminating cash assistance for disabled Pennsylvanians to Gov. Wolf

Scarnati typically only presides over the Senate in Fetterman’s absence. But he said Fetterman’s failure to enforce parliamentary rules during a heated debate Wednesday forced him to take control. 

“I have never witnessed a presiding officer refusing to follow the rules of the Senate,” Scarnati said. “I took the rostrum in order to follow the rules that are in place.”

The melee began after Senate Democrats staged a walkout to protest House Bill 33, a controversial measure that would repeal General Assistance, a cash benefits program that helps the disabled, those in treatment with addiction, and victims of domestic violence. 

Democrats prepared 22 amendments to preserve benefits for domestic violence survivors, veterans, and other groups currently eligible for General Assistance benefits. After Republicans motioned to end debate of the bill, Democrats walked off the Senate floor.

Democrats addressed reporters at a press conference outside Senate chambers before they returned to the floor, where the chaos reached a crescendo.

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, attempted to address the Senate before a final vote. Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman asked Fetterman to overrule her, saying the bill was not debatable.

Fetterman declined to immediately enforce the point. A shouting match ensued as Muth read a statement from a General Assistance recipient and Corman, R-Centre, called on Fetterman to stop her.

“This is your job! Do your job, Mr. President!” an emotional Corman yelled from his rostrum. 

Fetterman called on the Senate to rest “at ease” and pause their work. 

“He wanted to take a break so that calmer heads could prevail,” Fetterman spokesperson Christina Kauffman said Wednesday night. “He was trying to reestablish decorum.”

Republicans said Fetterman failed to abide by Mason’s Manual, a parliamentary guide produced by the National Conference of State Legislatures, specifically a section titled “Refusal of Presiding Office to Perform Duties.”

Scarnati said he called on Gov. Tom Wolf to meet with Fetterman and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. After the meeting, Fetterman agreed to hand Scarnati the Senate gavel for the remainder of the day.

Scarnati said that the discord had jeopardized the progress of the state’s 2019-20 budget, which is on track to reach the Wolf’s desk this week. 

“If we’re not operating in the rules, the entire budget process is now at risk of getting done,” Scarnati said.

The Senate reconvened on Wednesday night to consider a slate of bills. But Scarnati said Republicans would discuss how they wanted to proceed with budget negotiations.

Corman also accused Fetterman of orchestrating the spectacle with Senate Democrats. Earlier in the day, a group of citizens tried to unfurl a banner and lead chants from the Senate gallery to protest the proposed cuts. Their chants continued in a hallway and could be heard inside Senate chambers. 

“It was all planned,” Corman said. “From the guests in the gallery to the press conference out here to the lieutenant governor working with Senate Democrats to totally ignore [our] motion … This is the worst day in the Senate that I’ve been here.”

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