Sunday, January 10, 2021

PA Capitol & COVID Weekly Report: General Assembly Opens New Session; Senate Implodes; PA’s Role In Assault On U.S. Capitol

[ Because In Politics Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] On Tuesday, the Senate and House returned to Harrisburg for the first time since November for the start of a brand new legislative session and spent their first-- and only-- day swearing in new members, adopting basic operating rules and made a start at getting organized.

In the House, things were relatively orderly, but in the Senate things basically imploded into a very loud, partisan shouting match.

House Calm

One of the reasons for the different mood in the House was the death this past week of Rep. Mike Reese (R-Westmoreland) from a brain aneurysm.  He had also tested positive for COVID in December.  Read more here.

The House busied itself with swearing in members in more or less orderly groups and formally elected the Speaker-- Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster). 

House Republicans and Democrats even got a head start over the Senate by naming standing committee chairs-- actual committee members will come later. There were new faces in many of the positions because of member turnover. Read more here.

Fight Over Rule Changes

There was a fight in both the House and Senate during the adoption of the basic operating rules for each chamber.  Read more here.

At issue were a dozen Democratic proposals that hoped to change the way legislation is considered to require committee chairs and leadership to schedule bills for votes that have broad support in the House and Senate, but have never come up for votes.

Citizen reforms for drawing legislative and Congressional voting districts, for example, have enough bipartisan cosponsors to pass either chamber, if they are brought up for a vote.  Read more here

Gov. Wolf’s Restore PA infrastructure funding initiative had similar broad support, but was never voted.

In the House, the fight was more like a skirmish, in the Senate it was a fight, in keeping with the moods of each chamber last week.

Senate Republicans Refuse To Seat Democratic Member

The fireworks were in the Senate where Republicans did not allow Democratic Senator Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) to be sworn because legal challenges by his Republican opponent to some of the ballots cast were still resolved in federal court.  Read more here.

According to election results certified by the counties and the Department of State, Brewster won the seat by only 69 votes.

While Senate Democrats complained the Republican maneuver left residents of the 45th Senatorial District without representation, Senate Republicans said it didn’t really matter because they did not expect votes on any major issues in January.  Read more here.

At one point in the raucous debate, Republican President Pro Tempore Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) replaced Lt. Gov. John Fetterman as presiding officer for the day so Republicans could move forward with blocking the swearing in and other business.  Read more here.

The drama briefly made national news, before the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building Wednesday.  Read more here.

This was a replay of the same kind of tactic Republicans used in June of 2019 over elimination of the General Assistance Program, which also made national news.  Read more here.

On Friday, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said, “It is our plan to let the election case in front of the federal district court play out and ultimately seat whoever is successful in that process as long as the findings from the court are to the merit of the challenge and the validity of the disputed ballots and not based on the lack of jurisdiction of the federal courts.Read more hereRead more here.

So the latest Republican position is if they are unhappy with the court decision they could refuse to seat Jim Brewster anyway because they believe the Senate has the legal authority to do so.

Sunday there was a report the federal court may rule on the case as early as Monday.  Read more here.

After the brouhaha over seating Brewster, things went further downhill, with Democrats voting against the basic operating rules of the Senate and against formally electing Sen. Corman as President Pro Tempore, which typically ends up as a unanimous vote, but not this year.

State Election Review

Republicans in the Senate and House also moved ahead with plans to review the  November 3 election in light of what they say are concerns about the integrity of the election process.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans passed a motion by Republican Majority Leader Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) to form a Special Committee on Election Integrity and Reform.

The Special Committee, as described in a co-sponsor memo circulated by Sen. Corman, will focus on the review of all aspects of the 2020 General Election, including: the security of the vote before, during and after Election Day; the accuracy and security of the election process, particularly during the pre-canvassing and canvassing stages; the uniformity of the election processes across the Commonwealth; the impact and role of our judiciary on the election process; the impact and role of the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in issuing interpretations, guidance and instructions regarding the election process and the conduct of the election as a whole; and other election related issues that may come before the Committee.

In the House Tuesday, Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), Majority Chair of the House State Government Committee, released a tentative schedule for 14 public hearings from now through April to review the election.  The first hearing could come in the next two weeks. Read more here.  

This follows the release of a report by Rep. Grove in November providing basic background on the election process, from his perspective.  Read more here.

County election officials made it clear last week they hope to have the opportunity to share their election experiences and recommendations to make the process better and vote counting faster. Read more here.

Up until now, those officials felt like they have not had much impact because they’ve been caught in the middle of political maneuvering by the political parties.  Read more here.

As of late in the week, there were no statements by Senate or House Republicans on changing their effort to review the November election after the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building Wednesday.

Visit the PA Capitol Weekly NewsClips to read more on these issues.

Challenge To Election Results 

On January 6, 21 Senate Republican leaders wrote to Republican members of Congress urging them to challenge Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for Joe Biden citing unspecified “unlawful violations” and “questionable activities.”  Read more here.

House Republicans earlier issued a similar call to members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation to dispute the votes.  Read more here.

Gov. Wolf also weighed in on the issue early Wednesday saying Pennsylvania’s election was “fair and secure” as judged independently by a variety of state and federal courts and Congressional Republican efforts to overturn the state’s voting results were “disgraceful.”  Read more here.

A similar position was outlined in comments by Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming) on December 28-- only with the “shameful” part.  Read more here.

The only isolated criminal charges for voter fraud in last year’s elections so far have been brought against Republican voters attempting to vote several times or for dead people. Read more here.

After the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building Wednesday, Senate Republicans denounced the violence in Washington, but stopped short of withdrawing their challenge to Pennsylvania's electoral votes or claims of voter fraud that protesters were concerned about.  Read more here.

House Republicans also denounced the violence, but added, “An objection to the electoral process is within the rights of members of Congress and has been exercised by members from both sides of the aisle at different times in our nation’s history.”  Read more here.

Senate Democrats deplored the violence saying, “We held an election in November, and now – like every four years – we must have a peaceful transition of power. Our form of government cannot survive without it.” Read more here

House Democrats added, “For numerous weeks, leaders have failed to speak in a unified bipartisan voice that America respects the rule of law, the peaceful transition of power and the will of the voters to decide our elections. From our state Capitol to our nation’s Capitol, people have been cavalier with our democracy, and now we have violence in an attempt to overturn our elections through force.”  Read more here.

In the final votes confirming Biden as winner of the Presidential election, eight Republican members of Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation still opposed counting Pennsylvania’s electoral votes for Biden.  Read more here.

In addition to all this, on January 6, the same day as the assault on the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) introduced House Resolution 7 and House Resolution 8 that would invalidate the November 3 voter election results and allow the Senate and House to appoint Presidential electors, for President Trump no doubt.

Visit the PA Capitol Weekly NewsClips to read more on these issues.

PA’s Role In Capitol Assault

As media has reported, busloads of people from all over Pennsylvania descended on Washington, D.C. to be part of the protests supporting President Trump on Wednesday.

Stories describing their experiences before and after the protest turned violent have been reported from Western Pennsylvania, Lancaster County, Erie County and Centre County.

On Sunday, did a longer piece profiling the experiences of Lancaster County residents during the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

One resident posted a video on his social media page saying in part, “Donald Trump is going to shock the world! We’re ready for war, if we’re needed. … What’s going to happen today is going to be historic. America is going to take back everything, its glory. We’re going to make sure that happens! Freedom!”

Another article quoted a man named “Jeff,” who said he was an off-duty police officer from York County, as saying he didn’t know what would happen after he and his wife Amy reached the Capitol. But he felt ready to participate if something were to erupt.

“There’s a lot of people here willing to take orders,” he said. “If the orders are given, the people will rise up.”  Read more here.

On Monday, York City Police Commissioner Michael Muldrow said a man quoted in the New York Times as “Jeff” is not from his City department.  Read more here.  Nothing was mentioned in the York Daily Record article from other police departments in York County.

A police officer from Zelienople, Butler County is under investigation after being photographed among the crowd at the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

In Philadelphia, a police detective is the subject of an investigation after allegedly attending the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here. also Sunday told the story of how Pennsylvania Republicans, in their view, helped sow the seeds of violence ahead of the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

In other articles, Pennsylvania members of Congress recounted their view of the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building from the inside-- Matt Cartwright, Brendan Boyle, Madeleine Dean and Susan Wild.

Member of Congress Susan Wild added even when members were in lockdown, several Republican lawmakers refused to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID. Read more here.

Republican PA member Scott Perry was called out specifically for not wearing a mask during lockdown.  Read more here.

A reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer also told the story of what he saw as the assault on the Capitol closed in on the U.S. House Chamber.  Read more here.

So far, it has been reported 13 Pennsylvania residents were among the initial 55 people arrested and charged with violations during and after the protest.  Read more here.

On Friday, federal prosecutors filed charges against a Lebanon County man for his role in the assault and more charges are coming prosecutors said.  Read more here.

On Sunday, it was reported a Bucks County man was arrested after the assault on the Capitol on weapons and curfew violation charges.  Read more here.

The Associated Press Sunday reported Tara  Coleman from Lancaster has been arrested for unlawful entry and curfew violations in connection with the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

Sadly, a Schuylkill County man was one of the five deaths reported so far from the assault, this one from a medical emergency, local police reported.  Read more here.

Late in the week, Senate Democrats called for the resignation of Republican Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams), who took part in the Capitol protests, encouraged the challenge to Pennsylvania’s voting results and spread baseless claims of voter fraud.  Read more here.

Media also reported Sen. Mastriano appeared on a QAnon-dedicated interview program December 21 pushing conspiracy rhetoric.  Read more here.

On Friday, Gov. Wolf said Sen. Mastriano should be held accountable for his actions, but stopped short of calling for his resignation.  Read more here.

In response to these calls, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) said there was no cause for taking action against Sen. Mastriano because Mastriano told him he and his wife left the protest when it became violent.  Read more here.

A former Republican House member from Allegheny County-- Rick Saccone-- also attended the protest and posted a photo of himself on social media with the comment “We are storming the capitol. Our vanguard has broken through the barricades. We will save this nation. Are u with me?”  Read more here.

A day later, Saccone, who ran unsuccessfully against Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb two years ago, resigned as an adjunct professor at St. Vincent College “for the betterment of the school.”  Read more here.

In a statement, St. Vincent College said, “We strongly condemn the extreme actions of those in our nation's capital who engaged in violent and lawless acts against the people, institutions and processes of our democracy.

“We believe that all individuals have the right to an opinion, but when beliefs and opinions devolve into illegal and violent activities, there will be no tolerance.

"After reviewing the video posted by Rick Saccone, an adjunct professor, we immediately commenced an investigation of the facts and circumstances surrounding it. As a result of that investigation, Dr. Saccone has submitted and we have accepted his letter of resignation, effective immediately. He will no longer be associated with Saint Vincent College in any capacity."  Read more here.

Asked whether he had any regrets about participating in the Pro-Trump protests in Washington, D.C., Saccone cited a scarcity of portable toilets across the city, which he attributed to DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (D)-- “I think she was trying to torture us.”  Read more here.

On Friday, Seton Hill University in Greensburg announced it had fired an adjunct professor after social media posts about the assault on the U.S. Capitol that said, in part, “Finally, just maybe we will have the bloodshed that is needed to fix this country.”  Read more here.

On Monday there have been calls for a professor at the University of Pennsylvania to resign after he used Nazi rhetoric and a Nazi salute during a virtual conference on the same day as the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

Former Republican PA member of Congress and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate  Lou Barletta had one of his two Twitter accounts suspended for violating terms of service.  Barletta was quoted as saying, ““they can suspend my Twitter but they will not stop me from being a voice for the people of PA!”  Then he added, “I am just a private citizen.”  Read more here.

Three members of the East Lampeter Township board of supervisors in Lancaster County, a Republicans stronghold, announced Friday they were leaving the Republican Party in the wake of the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

In a letter to Lancaster County’s Republican Committee, the supervisors said, “The denial of the 2020 election results by members of our party and elected officials in Lancaster County is outrageous

“Our neighbors voted, those votes became the certified election results and were upheld by our judicial system. Continuing to deny these facts has damaged our system of government and has fomented the seeds of sedition, resulting in violence in our nation’s capital.”

Gene DiGirolamo, the Republican Commissioner from Bucks County, said “You can’t believe a word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth.”  Read more here.

Major businesses and business groups from the Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania and across the United States joined in condemning the violence and blamed President Trump for inciting the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building.  Read more here.

The PA Chamber of Business and Industry also condemned the violence and the assault on the U.S. Capitol Building, “Yesterday’s violence at the U.S. Capitol was completely unacceptable.  It was an assault on our democracy and an affront to our ideals. Those who committed these acts should be prosecuted as soon as possible.  One of the hallmarks of our democracy has been the commitment by those in elected office to a peaceful transition of power.  Hopefully this will galvanize all of us to focus on the need for civility in politics as well as everyday life and also on rebuilding the spirit of cooperation needed to move this country forward.”  Read more here.

One Philadelphia attorney who represented the Trump campaign asked to quit the case saying President Trump used his services “to perpetrate a crime.”  Read more here.

Two other attorneys from the Fox Rothschild firm in Philadelphia, including a partner, who took part in President Trump’s call to Georgia election officials asking them to find 11,780 votes so he would win, were asked to leave the firm and they did.  Read more here.

On Friday, the Allentown School District temporarily removed a teacher who attended the Pro-Trump protests from his position, pending an investigation into the role the individual played in the protests.  Read more here.

Also on Friday, Lehigh University rescinded an honorary degree it gave to President Trump in 1988.  Read more here.

On Saturday, Republican PA U.S. Senator Pat Toomey told Fox News he thinks “the president committed impeachable offenses,” but didn’t know if the Senate would act on articles of impeachment in the final 11 days of Trump’s term in office.  Read more here.

On Sunday, Sen. Toomey (R-PA) called on Trump to “resign and go away as soon as possible.”  Read more here.

Former Gov. Tom Ridge and other former members of Congress from Northwest  Pennsylvania-- both Republican and Democrat-- expressed their “outrage” and “disbelief” and the assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.  Read more here.

"I am sad and angry," said Gov. Ridge.  "The blame lies squarely with the president. His many incitements are responsible. @JoeBiden did what presidents do in trying to bring us together. All Americans should support his message of healing. And to the seditionists: Go home!"

On Thursday, Gov. Ridge and three other former secretaries of Homeland Security issued a statement condemning the rioters and Trump.  Read more here.

On Sunday, media reported Western Pennsylvania officials were preparing for possible pro-Trump violence ahead of Biden’s inauguration just as Twitter was warning of a secondary attack on the U.S. Capitol.  Read more here.

A Luzerne County newspaper editorial Sunday probably said it best so far-- “Trump voters, your voices have been heard, there were just more for Biden.”  [Read more here]  Luzerne County was won by Trump.

Here are some thoughtful articles putting the assault and pro-Trump protest in context--

-- AP: Racial Double Standard Clear In Comparing BLM And Trump’s Capitol Insurrection

-- Philly BLM Activists Contrast Mob Response With How They Were Treated: ‘Violence By White Folks Was Met With Grace’

-- Op-Ed: Imagine What Would Have Happened Had The Rioters Who Stormed The U.S. Capitol Been Black

-- The Atlantic: Republicans Own This Insurrection And It Extends Well Beyond Trump [PA Republicans]

-- The Atlantic: The Capitol Riot Was An Attack On Multiracial Democracy [Philadelphia]

-- The Atlantic: Don’t Let Them Pretend This Didn’t Happen

Visit the PA Capitol Weekly NewsClips to read more on these issues.

Public’s Help Needed

Local, state and federal law enforcement officials have asked for the public’s help in identifying individuals who assaulted and breached the U.S. Capitol Building.  Read more here.

Law enforcement officials in Pennsylvania, along with Republican and Democratic lawmakers, said law breakers should be punished to the full extent of the law.  Read more here.

Ironically, pro-Trump rioters could face increased penalties for their actions under an Executive Order issued by President Trump in response to protesters taking down Confederate monuments last summer which authorizes up to 10 years in prison for “injury of federal property.”  Read more here.

Judicial Gerrymandering

Conservative Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon) wasted no time opening another politically-charged can of worms last week by introducing House Bill 38 which would require state appeals court justices to be elected in judicial voting districts across the state, rather than statewide.

Born out of Republican opposition to election-related decisions by the Democratically-controlled PA Supreme Court, the General Assembly is set to pass this requirement for the second time, meaning the change would go directly to voters with no action required by the Governor.

The many opponents of this fundamental change in the structure of the Judiciary say it gives Republicans the opportunity to gerrymander voting districts like they do with the House, Senate and Congressional districts, but this time to pick judges. Read more here.

Strong Revenues

On January 4, the Department of Revenue reported December state revenue collections were $465.8 million, or 14.5 percent, more than anticipated.  Fiscal year-to-date General Fund collections total $18.5 billion, which is $467.1 million, or 2.6 percent, above estimate.  Read more here.

The Independent Fiscal Office also reported December revenue was $774.4 million or 26.2 percent above its more conservative revenue projections from last June.  Read more here.

Of course, estimates say there will be a $3.5 billion deficit going into budget talks for FY 2021-22, but every little bit helps!

Federal Aid Update

The House Democratic Appropriations Committee provided an update on expected federal stimulus funding assistance Pennsylvania will receive.  Read more here.

Some of the big ticket items include--

-- $2.002 billion for school districts and charter schools from the winter 2020 federal relief elementary and secondary school emergency relief fund (ESSER);

-- $852.2 million for emergency rental assistance;

-- $736.9 million for public health and social services emergency fund;

-- $501.39 million for transit emergency relief for transit agencies;

-- $407.55 million for the PennDOT to be used for highway improvement projects;

-- $292 million for for child care assistance for low-income families; and

-- $115.7 million to plan, prepare for, promote, distribute, administer, monitor and track COVID vaccine distribution, access and coverage.

Incoming President Joe Biden has promised to seek trillions of dollars in new federal stimulus funding fearing a faltering economic recovery.  Friday, the federal government reported a loss of 140,000 jobs in December.   Read more here.

Some COVID Rules Loosened

On Thursday, the departments of Health and Education announced new recommendations for school districts to encourage the return of elementary school students to in-person classes, with the appropriate COVID safeguards.  Read more here.

The decision on when to return and how is still left to local school districts, but the new guidance provides more support to parents seeking in-person classes.

The move was immediately criticized by the state teachers union.  Read more here.

Philadelphia officials said Friday they could allow a return to indoor dining on January 16, if the COVID numbers continue to improve.  Read more here.

COVID Variant

On Tuesday, the Department of Health confirmed the first case of the more highly contagious COVID variant strain of the virus in Pennsylvania-- Dauphin County.  The case was the result of an international travel exposure to the virus, not general community spread.  Read more here.

An infectious disease expert at Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie said the new variant may require a change in the precautions people take to avoid infection, like staying 10 or 12 feet from people, rather than six.  Read more here.

Statewide Percent Positivity 14.4%

As of Friday, the statewide COVID percent-positivity went down to 14.4 percent from 15 percent last week. Anything above 5 percent is bad. Read more here.

The five counties with the highest percent-positivity include-- Clinton (28.1 percent); Forest (25.8 percent); Schuylkill (24.4 percent); Franklin (23.7 percent) and Armstrong (22.8 percent).

For comparison, Allegheny County is 11.5 percent, up from 11.2 percent last week and Philadelphia is 10.8 percent, down from 12.1 percent last week.

There were NO counties at or below the 5 percent threshold last week. Cambria was the lowest at 10.2 percent.

 See your county’s percent-positivity here.

COVID-19 Record Death Toll

The total number of deaths from COVID-19 increased from 16,239 on January 2 to 17,667 on January 9. The number of people testing positive for the virus went from 657,292 on January 2 to 713,310 on January 9.

The Department of Health also reported Pennsylvania’s rate of COVID testing was above the national average for the first time in the most recent White House COVID Task Force Weekly Report.  Read more here.

Rep. Summer Lee (D-Allegheny) became the twelfth state legislator to test positive for COVID since the pandemic began.  Read more here.

Vaccine Dashboard

As of Friday, the Department of Health Vaccine Data Dashboard showed 194,527 doses of COVID vaccine were administered in Pennsylvania, up from 125,901 last week.

Also Friday, the Department of Health released its latest update to the state’s vaccine distribution plan to bring it in line with the latest federal recommendations.  Read more here.

On Saturday, a media report found Pennsylvania and New Jersey have not used hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses and less than a third of the doses delivered have actually been administered.  Read more here.

More changes to the plan are coming as the Biden Administration seeks to speed up COVIC vaccinations.  One change already released involves not holding back vaccines for second doses and getting as many people as possible vaccinated.  Read more here.


The Department of Labor and Industry reported 38,512 new claims for unemployment compensation between December 27 and January 2, down very slightly from last week’s 38,279. Read more here.

On Friday, the Department of Labor and Industry announced the additional federal unemployment payment boost included in the recently passed federal stimulus bill will start to automatically appear in payments starting this week.  Read more here.

However, the agency said about 509,000 other unemployment claimants cannot yet file for unemployment for weeks after December 26 until the U.S. Department of Labor releases additional guidance.  Read more here.

Court Tosses Victims’ Rights Amendment

On Thursday, Commonwealth Court, in a 3 to 2 vote, issued a decision directing state and local officials not to count the votes on a victims’ right amendment to the state constitution that was on the ballot in November 2019.  Read more here.

The Court said the amendment was unconstitutional because it dealt with more than one subject in one amendment.  The “single-subject” rule is something state appeals courts have also adhered to in challenges to bills signed into law.

The lawsuit was brought by the PA League of Women Voters.

What’s Next?

The House returns to session January 11, 12 and 13, but there isn’t much on the announced agenda.

The Senate does not return to Harrisburg until January 25.


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[Posted: January 10, 2021]

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