House lawmakers made their long-awaited return to Harrisburg on Tuesday after more than a month of gridlock prevented the chamber from holding votes or forming legislative committees – save for an unexpected vote that thrust Democratic state Rep. Mark Rozzi into the position of speaker in early January.
Since then, the chamber has been largely inactive, though Rozzi embarked on a statewide listening tour in January with his bipartisan working group to garner input on how to reform the chamber’s operating rules. But on Tuesday, the mood inside the chamber was anything but bipartisan.
In the opening hours of the special session, Democrats and Republicans, now separated by a three-seat margin, fought over the passage of rules for a special session to consider legislation that would create a two-year window for child sex abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits against their abusers.
Rozzi called up House Resolution 17 for consideration, which bars lawmakers from amending the special session rules. Republicans, who are now in the minority after three new Democratic lawmakers were sworn in Tuesday, objected to the measure, characterizing it as an effort to stifle debate and GOP input.
“The rules we’re presented with today are intended to freeze the minority, to freeze 101 voices – that is 65,000 people per 101 voices – from ever being heard in this chamber,” said Paul Schemel, a Franklin County Republican who served on Rozzi’s work group.
Schemel added that the special session rule package, which was later approved with a party-line vote, didn’t reflect the goals of Rozzi’s bipartisan panel of lawmakers.
“I vehemently, strongly oppose these rules, because they reflect not the will of the working group, not the will of the people that came to speak before us, but instead the will of a tyrannical majority of one,” Schemel said.
Democrats also used other procedural tactics to cut off debate on both HR 17 and the special session rules resolution, House Resolution 7.
GOP lawmakers also objected to certain provisions in the rules, including the lack of a House Ethics Committee, during the special session. The rules passed on Tuesday also require bills to receive support from two-thirds of House members to be amended, as opposed to a simple majority of members.
That provision rankled House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Lancaster County Republican, who echoed Schemel’s concerns.
“It’s a tyranny of a majority of one. It’s imperial powers that we’ve never seen in the rules here. I don’t recall a two-thirds requirement, except to override a veto. And yet here we are today, considering a resolution that can’t even be amended, and we couldn’t even debate the ability to amend it,” Cutler said.
Democrats accused Republicans of attempting to delay action on a constitutional amendment and bill to create the two-year window through parliamentary inquiries ahead of the rules vote.
“The delay tactics have got to stop,” said House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia Democrat. “The victims have waited long enough.”
Democratic state Rep. Peter Schweyer, a Democrat from Lehigh County, said moving ahead with a rules package for the special session does align with at least one goal discussed among Rozzi’s working group: passing the statute of limitations reform.
“Overwhelmingly, at the public hearings, what we heard over and over and over again is, it is time for this chamber to finally deliver justice for victims of juvenile sexual assault,” he said. “More so than anything else that I heard throughout this process is: ‘Can the legislature please stop with the tricks and the antics, and focus on the one thing that was important, which is delivering justice for kids that were sexually assaulted?’ To stop with the games … to stop with the tricks, and do our jobs.”
The amendment is one of the last-remaining legislative recommendations made by a grand jury that investigated widespread sexual abuse at Pennsylvania Catholic churches. Rozzi, who was raped by a priest during his youth, has made advancing the measure a top priority.
Constitutional amendments must be approved by lawmakers in two consecutive sessions in identical form in order to be placed on the ballot for voters to approve or reject. An amendment creating the two-year legal window was approved in two straight sessions by lawmakers, but an error at the Department of State reset the clock and forced lawmakers to start over.
The new Democratic majority in the state House did end up approving operating rules for the special session on Tuesday after hours of debate with Republicans.
The rules, contained in HR 7, established a special committee called the “Committee to Provide Justice to Otherwise Barred Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse” to advance bills through the legislative process during the special session.
The committee met briefly Tuesday to advance the two measures that would create the two-year legal window, and then the House adjourned until it reconvenes for a non-voting session on Wednesday, and for a voting session on Thursday.