Republicans must overcome schism among Harrisburg power brokers

Dominic Pileggi can work with fellow Senate leader Joe Scarnati, Pileggi's spokesman says.
Dominic Pileggi can work with fellow Senate leader Joe Scarnati, Pileggi's spokesman says. (AP)
Posted: July 22, 2014

HARRISBURG - Just minutes before Gov. Corbett stepped out to announce he was using his line item veto power to strike millions of dollars from the legislature's budget two weeks ago, one of his top aides called over to the state Senate.

Drew Crompton, counsel and chief of staff to the Senate's president pro tempore, took the call. The administration, he was told, was going to whack not just $65 million in legislative operational spending, but $7.2 million in legislative-controlled special projects, or earmarks.

"You can't do that," Crompton said he told Corbett's budget secretary, Charles Zogby, questioning the constitutionality of vetoing some of the money.

"Our lawyers tell us we can," Crompton said Zogby replied tersely.

Crompton and his boss, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, are Republicans. So are Corbett and Zogby.

That may be one of the few things they have in common these days.

The exchange underscores a growing schism among Republicans who control the trifecta of state government: the House, the Senate, and the governor's office.

To be sure, the three have had an uneasy relationship since the GOP snagged control of the Capitol in 2010.

But the last year has laid bare just how deep the divide has become - and not just between the governor and the Senate.

The two legislative chambers have struggled to reach consensus on key policy issues, leading to frustration and resentment on both sides, political observers say.

Within the chambers, too, Republican leaders have clashed privately over everything from appointments to duties to who should take the lead on high-profile policy issues.

Then there is Corbett. Widely considered one of the most vulnerable governors in the country heading into the fall election, the Republican prosecutor-turned-politician has, wittingly or not, picked a fight with the legislature this year.

By vetoing legislative spending this month - a largely symbolic gesture to signal his disappointment with legislators - the unequivocal message he has sent is this: I am not your friend.

Rob Gleason, chairman of the state GOP, acknowledged the conflict in an interview last week, but maintained such differences were normal and would not affect the fall elections.

Aside from Corbett's job, half the Senate's 50 seats and all 203 seats in the House are up for grabs. And, though the House is solidly Republican, Democrats are plotting to chip away at the GOP's slimmer 27-23 majority in the Senate.

"Sure, I see the discord, and it worries me," Gleason said. "If we are not fighting Democrats, we are fighting each other. That is part of politics."

But, Gleason said, "It doesn't worry me that we are going to lose elections. Republicans will rally."

Toiled without results

There is much mending to be done, and not much time to do it. Ahead of November's high-stakes election, a number of issues remain unresolved among the three sides.

The most talked-about one these days is overhauling the state's skyrocketing-in-cost public employee pension system. For his part, Corbett has been openly critical - both in his day job and on the campaign trail - of the legislature's failure to act on the budget.

That lack of action is one of the reasons he decided to strike millions in legislative funding and projects earlier this month, a move that could even result in the legislature suing him.

Corbett's vetoes, many legislators and top staffers said, had no practical purpose or impact on the budget's bottom line. And they believe some of his veto strikes were unconstitutional.

"Their action was punitive," Crompton said of the administration's vetoes. "And it was purposely punitive. They are not so naive over there as to think there won't be ramifications."

Top House GOP officials have echoed the sentiment, one of the few times since the start of the year they have sided with their Senate colleagues.

Despite a hard-fought agreement late last year on transportation funding, the two chambers have toiled without results in recent months on most of the high-profile policy issues in the Capitol.

At the heart of that discord is that the chambers' GOP majorities couldn't be more different. In the House, run by Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), the party's conservative policies and ideals take center stage.

The Senate, run by Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a moderate Republican from Delaware County, this year was seriously considering raising new revenue through new or increased taxes. To the House, that might as well have been a foreign language.

Complicating matters are internal disagreements among GOP leaders, including Pileggi and Scarnati, from Jefferson County, according to several Republican legislators and staffers who asked that their names not be used because they believe it is a sensitive matter.

The two men, they said, have had flare-ups over certain powers that go along with their titles, including appointing authority and driving the legislative agenda.

Erik Arneson, Pileggi's spokesman, said last week that Pileggi and Scarnati had a good working relationship, and that "in the Harrisburg echo chamber, small differences quickly get blown out of proportion."

Lawmakers smarting

Straddling the divide is Corbett, about whom many legislators have complained for years is aloof and has difficulty navigating the politics and personalities in the Capitol - so much so that the GOP-controlled legislature has stepped in and tried to drive the agenda.

That in large part is why Corbett's tough stance this year on the budget has left some lawmakers smarting and proclaiming the governor's victory pyrrhic.

Leslie Gromis-Baker, Corbett's chief of staff, said the intent is not to publicly take on the legislature, but to send the message that "there must be shared sacrifice."

She said the governor continues to talk with legislative leaders and their staffs, and chalked up disagreements as the "natural tension between the executive and the legislative branch."

"Everyone is professional," she said. "And everyone understands that in politics, that is how it is sometimes. But you just have to move forward."


acouloumbis@phillynews.com

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk

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