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Democrats seek rule change as hopes dashed

Senators sharply criticize colleagues

Some Democrats are banking on changes to the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rules, after Republicans blocked their efforts toward election reform for a third time.

Senators like Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., sharply criticized their colleagues this week for stopping the bill, which would have made Election Day a national holiday and set nationwide standards for early and mail-in voting.

“Our democracy is under siege and today, for the third time this year, Senate Republicans voted against the Senate from even debating legislation to protect voting rights,” Casey said Wednesday evening in a written statement.

The failure — which followed months of negotiation and compromise with centrist Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va. — underscored the difficulty Democrats face in passing even watered-down legislation.

Some have cited it as another reason to alter or eliminate the filibuster, a Senate tradition that lets a 40-member minority hold up most business indefinitely.

In recent months, Casey has indicated his willingness to cut the filibuster. And he’s not alone among his Democratic colleagues, especially as more of President Joe Biden’s agenda is held up.

“I was elected to serve the people, not an arcane Senate procedure,” Casey tweeted in April. “If the choice comes down to the filibuster or democracy, I know which side I’m on.”

Republicans have remained united in their opposition to recent voting-rights bills, despite hopes that Manchin could lead some to back a weaker version. In June, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., called one such bill an “election law power grab” that would keep states from setting their own rules.

Democrats in Congress have moved with increasing urgency to reform federal election law, especially as GOP-controlled states impose new restrictions. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has held back new restrictions, but some Republican lawmakers have moved to avoid his veto by passing voter ID rules by constitutional amendment.

As Democrats like Casey argue, state-level restrictions like those passed this year in Georgia could have outsized effects on Black voters.

“Let me be clear: At the core of voter suppression is white supremacy,” Casey said. “Our democracy is under attack, and we need to keep fighting to ensure all Americans have a say in their government.”

Train case spurs Good Samaritan bill

A state lawmaker said he hopes to pass a law requiring bystanders to help crime victims, after a woman’s rape on a Philadelphia-area train drew national headlines this week.

Sen. Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, said Tuesday he intends to introduce a bill that would require witnesses to “provide reasonable assistance” to anyone facing serious physical harm. He cited a similar Minnesota law — known in some states as a Good Samaritan Law — that makes it a misdemeanor to fail to render aid.

Brewster said he was working on the bill when news broke of the Philadelphia-area case. Police said a man sexually assaulted a woman on a SEPTA train, in view of witnesses who allegedly didn’t provide help or contact the authorities.

The district attorney in Delaware County has since challenged the story’s details, arguing that most passengers likely weren’t aware and that one may have contacted officials. Still, the case has spurred interest in stricter responsibilities for civilian bystanders.

While bystanders in some cases can’t directly help — due to safety concerns, for example — Brewster’s bill would require them to at least call the police. Those who have the opportunity and fail to would face a third-degree misdemeanor, he said.

Bill would call for lax bus licenses

State leaders are struggling to reinforce Pennsylvania’s corps of school bus drivers, as jobs across the country remain unfilled.

This week, two lawmakers said they hope to petition the federal government to relax licensing requirements for bus drivers, while seeking the governor’s help in suspending some testing rules.

School bus routes have been understaffed since at least the start of this school year, although the roots go back further. Observers have pointed to several causes — including coronavirus concerns, retirement among older drivers and the draw of app-based rideshare jobs for younger ones.

“In the last 10 years, the Commonwealth lost approximately 2,000 school bus drivers,” Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, and Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-Chester, said in announcing their bill.

In Pittsburgh, the public school year was delayed amid shortages; officials eventually enlisted county transit services to help ferry kids to schools. In Ohio, schools are offering cash bonuses, while in Maryland and North Carolina, drivers have threatened or carried out strikes in recent weeks over pay and conditions.

In Massachusetts, officials called up the National Guard to drive buses amid severe shortages.

Brown and Hennessey are moving to expand Pennsylvania’s driver pool another way: by petitioning the federal government to make it easier to get a license. Under existing rules, school bus drivers must study for several weeks, pass a series of tests and show knowledge of their vehicle’s inner workings.

While their resolution couldn’t change those rules, the lawmakers said they hope to get temporary waivers while asking Congress to relax federal policy, or even create a new license just for school bus drivers.

“A CDL truck driver and a CDL school bus driver are different occupations,” Brown and Hennessey said — but when it comes to licenses “they are treated the same.”

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Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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