Pennsylvania state Senate heading for leadership showdown

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The long-awaited state Senate showdown has arrived.

Pennsylvania legislators will return to Harrisburg on Wednesday for leadership elections, with a challenge to Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, as the main event.

Pileggi has held the job since 2002, but he has come under increasing scrutiny from his own caucus this fall with some Republican senators accusing him of being more beholden to unions than the GOP agenda.

While Pileggi wants to keep the job, state Sen. Jake Corman, the Centre County Republican who chairs the appropriations committee, announced last week he would also seek the leadership post, providing an alternative for lawmakers looking for a new direction as Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf readies to take office in January.

CORMAN MAKES HIS MOVE: State Sen. Jake Corman, the current appropriations chairman, has his sights set on majority leader.

Count state Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, in that camp. Wagner has only been part of the General Assembly since last spring, but he hit the scene hard for a call to shake up Harrisburg. GOP leadership hasn’t been immune from Wagner’s ire, either.

“I think we’re going to see a leadership change,” he said last week.

Wagner provided the first glimpse of frustration with Pileggi. He penned a letter to the leader in September, calling him the “number one obstacle” in the state Senate.

“The bottom line is this: I have concluded that it is not in the best interest of Pennsylvanians for you to continue as Senate Majority Leader,” Wagner wrote to Pileggi.

State Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, followed with his own letter indicating he would not support Pileggi, leading to even more speculation a challenge was forthcoming.

The current appropriations chairman, Corman is running as part of a slate of candidates including state Sen. Joe Scarnati, who is seeking to retain his Senate president pro tempore position, and state Sen. Pat Browne, who is looking to move up from majority whip to appropriations chairman.

“I look forward to working with each member to strike common ground and build an agenda that we can accomplish together,” Corman said in the letter.

While not running as part of a slate of candidates, state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, is seeking to become the first female chair of the appropriations committee.

Corman did not return a message seeking comment, but his candidacy comes after Republicans increased their majority to 30 members in the Senate, with the more conservative flank of the party gaining a stronger voice along the way.

That could make it more difficult for Pileggi, part of a more moderate contingent of Republican lawmakers from the Philadelphia suburbs, to hold onto the post. He’ll try, though.

Pileggi has circulated his own letter seeking support for another term as majority leader, pointing to his campaign fundraising efforts, his

EXPERIENCED HAND: With Democrat Tom Wolf preparing to take over as governor, current Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi would give Republicans an experienced hand if kept in his post.

experience negotiating state budgets and his communications efforts with the caucus. He stressed 2015 will be a key year for the caucus, with Wolf’s nominating his cabinet members and two justices for the state Supreme Court while pushing for changes to Pennsylvania’s income tax.

Pileggi also perhaps made a reference to some of the criticism directed his way, particularly the sentiment he held up legislation favored by some of his own caucus members.

“My operating belief has been that the Majority Leader should not dictate or advance his or her own agenda,” he wrote. “Rather, the Leader should ensure that each member’s view is respected, listened to, and given full and honest consideration for inclusion in legislation moving to the floor of the Senate.

“Looking forward,” Pileggi continued, “we need to engage in a candid discussion about how to accommodate increasingly divergent views while still being able to find the 26 votes necessary to advance any issue.”

Part of the job of majority leader is to avoid placing caucus members in tenuous voting situations — a point that Lebanon Valley College political science professor James Broussard made earlier this fall, when Wagner set politicos abuzz with his letter to Pileggi.

The votes that Wagner and other conservatives favored — paycheck protection legislation as one example — certainly had the chance to put some GOP senators, especially those in more moderate districts with stronger labor influences, into risky spots before an election.

And with Democratic lawmakers staunchly opposed, there was no guarantee those items would even pass, raising the question of whether it was worthwhile to place caucus members in jeopardy.

Republicans will have a bigger cushion in the next session, but Broussard’s larger point remains, regardless of whether Corman up-ends with Pileggi in the state Senate showdown.

“Whoever in leadership is still going to have to face that same question: Do I force my people to take tough votes when I know we’re not going to win the vote?” Broussard said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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