As a burst of new legislation from emboldened PA Senate Republicans speeds through Harrisburg, bills to restrict late-term abortions, punish immigrant-friendly “sanctuary cities” and curb union due collection have all drawn the ire from liberal critics. But with a month of budget hearings ahead, it's not clear where those bills are heading anytime soon as they collide with an indecisive GOP-controlled House and veto threats from Gov. Tom Wolf.
SB-3, modeled off previous bills that sought to ban abortions after 20 weeks, cleared the Senate on Wednesday. SB-10, which would withhold state grants from sanctuary cities, is already on its way to the House. So are SB-166 and 167, so-called “paycheck protection” measures that prevent the automatic collection of union dues from government workers’ paychecks.
But political science professor G. Terry Madonna, professor of public affairs and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said it would be no surprise if all of these bills faced a lengthy road to enactment, despite swift reintroduction and passage.
“These bills have not had very rapid progress in the last session or two,” he said.
Although the House passed similar abortion legislation last year, Wolf has already said decisively that he would veto the new bill on grounds that it is “unconstitutional.” Wolf, in turn, was more equivocal on anti-sanctuary city measures, but House sources say the lower chamber may attempt to introduce their own, more extreme versions of that bill – essentially restarting the legislative process around that issue. Paycheck protection drew support from just over half of the Senate and a previous iteration of that bill languished in the House.
Sources on both sides of the aisle said they were unsure if the House could muster enough votes to rebuff the governor – which necessitate some Democratic crossover. And while the GOP enjoys a veto-proof majority in the Senate, of the three bills, only sanctuary city legislation garnered the 34 votes needed for an override.
Madonna said it was no coincidence the Senate immediately took on incremental changes to three extremely divisive issues – a raft of bills guaranteed to generate more publicity than, say, far-reaching impacts.
“There is no doubt the timing has everything to do with the Republicans going back to their base,” he said. “I think these issues merely reinforce their own supporters’ views and add to the divide with the Democrats – and really add to the divisions within the Legislature and with Wolf.”
Republican sources said that even if the abortion bill and paycheck protections cleared the House, the numbers weren’t right to fight off a veto from Wolf.
“The Senate vote on abortion got 32 votes and the one on paycheck got 28,” said political consultant Chris Nicholas. “They're not that close for an override.”
Republican Senate leadership also demurred, at least on the issue of abortion.
“[Wolf] will probably veto abortion and paycheck protection,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff to Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. “We would be the first chamber to do the veto override on abortion, but we would by no means be successful. So, I don't know if we would even take it up.”
That leaves the anti-sanctuary city legislation, which some say could hit a sweet spot for Republicans.
Places like Philadelphia, whose growth is dependent on immigration, currently bar most cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents. But the issue has sparked a conservative backlash, with critics saying the policy enables criminal migrants, particularly as immigration has moved to the forefront of national politics. Some say SB-10 has the potential to siphon off Democratic votes in places like Southwestern PA, where Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric played well.
Wolf’s office has certainly been much less strident when asked if they would veto.
“We are monitoring the legislative process and federal government activity on this issue, but we have concerns about this bill, including whether states may legally require that municipalities assist with the enforcement of federal law,” said spokesperson JJ Abbott. “We also have concerns about the impact on citizens and families from the loss of federal and state funding.”
Crompton said the GOP had tried to craft a “narrowly focused” bill for exactly that reason.
“It simply says that if you're detained and there's reasonable suspicion that the person is not a citizen, you can check with immigration,” he said. “You can't make a race-profiling issue with this bill. You have a suspicion, you check it out, regardless of race. This was the zone we thought was the critical mass for our caucus.”
Ironically, that might be precisely the problem for some in the lower chamber. House sources said state Rep. Martina White was planning to reintroduce her own, more far-reaching version of a bill to punish sanctuary cities. Others said that ultra-conservative state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe was reportedly planning to introduce his own omnibus bill targeting sanctuary cities and campuses.
But White’s previous House bills have drawn the wrath of the American Civil Liberties Union for attempting to mandate local law enforcement to issue detainer orders on behalf of federal authorities. These orders are often issued without evidence or probable cause, presenting constitutional issues and the possibility of lawsuits.
Even immigration advocates, like Sundrop Carter of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, seemed skeptical that SB-10 or a string of other anti-immigration bills floating around Harrisburg would move through the House as quickly as the state Senate.
“In 2011, when there were 22 anti-immigrant bills, they said they were all going to pass. But none of them passed,” she said. “As soon as the budget fight goes into full gear, they're going to realize these bills will cost the state a lot of money.”
Carter might be right about possible delays. Asked about the sanctuary city bills, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Mike Turzai told the Post-Gazette today that the budget would take precedence.
However, she acknowledged that if there was an issue that would make more conservative Democrats turn on their governor, it could be the sanctuary city policies.
“I think that immigration is still not a priority for the governor,” she said. “He has a lot of political fights in front of him...I think there are some issues he’s thinks of as lower on his priority list.”
Metcalfe and White both declined to comment by press time.