Scarnati took the rare step on Wednesday of taking the gavel from Fetterman, who serves as the body’s president and presiding officer.
Harrisburg, PA – According to the AP, the “chaos” began during budget negotiations when GOP Senators made a move to bar the Democrats from adding more than one amendment to the General Assistance Bill, which included keeping the benefits for domestic abuse survivors, and to “head off votes on amendments” that would keep the military veterans, cancer survivors and others for the program.
Democrats staged a walk off of the floor briefly before reentering the room to continue voicing their opposition to the bill.
While the Democrats attempted to fight this move, Republicans, led by state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) took the gavel from Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to put the vote in motion.
After the debate period ended and the vote was put in motion, State Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery) defiantly began to read a letter from a recipient of the general assistance program. State Sen. Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) tried to end this reading by calling for a “point of order,” and a shouting match ensued.
Prior to the chaos breaking out on the Senate floor, Fetterman proudly tweeted a photo of his slip-on checkerboard patterned sneakers, ironically captioned, “Senate will now come to order.”
Whether intentional or ignorant, Republicans interpreted this gaffe as a dereliction of duty that undermined the integrity of the Senate floor.
Corman later pointed blame at Fetterman for not intervening and said his job was to enforce the rules and not be a “partisan hack.” He added that it was the “worst day in the Senate” since he’s been there, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.
In a tweet posted after the vote had taken place, Scarnati defended his decision to preside over the vote saying it was “crucial” for him to “fulfill my Constitutional role to preside over the Senate.”
The bill would end a decades-old program that offers $200 a month to people deemed unable to work.
The bill ultimately passed the GOP-controlled chamber, 26-24, with two Republicans siding with Democrats against it, but not before a tense scene unfolded that senators on both sides roundly said they had never witnessed in the chamber.
The Republican demand to eliminate the program, called general assistance, has become particularly contentious, drawing demonstrators to the Senate gallery Wednesday and sparking passionate debate in the House in recent days.
It will be up to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf to decide on the bill. Wolf opposes eliminating general assistance, but Republicans tied it to subsidies for Philadelphia hospitals, and Wolf has not said whether he would sign or veto it.
Democrats frame the program as a lifeline for people to afford basic necessities at the lowest point in their lives. Republicans have tried for years to eliminate it, saying it is of questionable value.
It is projected to serve about 10,000 people a year at a cost of approximately $24 million next year, according to Wolf’s office.
As they fought over the bill Wednesday in the Senate, Republicans accused Democrats — and in particular Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who presides in the Senate — of flouting the chamber’s operating rules. Democrats accused Republicans of questionable, never-before-seen tactics to run roughshod over debate. Both sides accused the other of “hijacking” the chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, called it the “worst day” in the Senate he’s seen in his 20-plus years. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he later sought Wolf’s intervention.
“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.”