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Reps set to battle over Pa. abortions

With the constitutional right to an abortion struck down last week by the Supreme Court, battle lines are being drawn in Harrisburg over the next steps.

Lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf fought this week over funding to state-affiliated universities like the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State — a fight tied closely to abortion rights. And other bills to roll back abortion rights are being prepared for votes.

Some Republican legislators spent the week threatening to hold up Pitt’s state funding if the university doesn’t end medical research using fetal tissue derived from abortions. While the university’s leaders have stressed that the research is carried out under ethical guidelines, anti-abortion activists demand it be stopped entirely.

It wasn’t clear early Friday what would become of the funding, which is part of an already overdue state budget deal. Last year, the four state-affiliated universities got nearly $600 million from Harrisburg.

The university fight is just one of many. GOP lawmakers, emboldened by firm control of the Legislature and a legal victory, are moving to pass more bills despite Wolf’s veto threats.

A bill that would ban some abortions in cases of fetal Down syndrome was slated for a Senate vote this week after it passed the House last year. The bill would require the doctor performing the procedure to verify that it wasn’t brought about, “in whole or in part,” by a Down syndrome case.

A proposed constitutional amendment by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, is also awaiting a vote in the Senate. The amendment, if passed during two sessions and by a popular vote, would confirm there is no right to abortion in the state — effectively foreclosing legislature to protect that right.

Democrats haven’t avoided the fight: A bill by Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, introduced in early June would hold so-called crisis pregnancy centers — offices that guide patients away from abortion and sometimes have ties to religious groups — to tighter privacy standards.

Court case could lock party power

The next major case to be taken up by the Supreme Court could shake Pennsylvania’s politics and potentially award a powerful nationwide victory to the right.

On Thursday, the court agreed to hear Moore v. Harper, a case originating in North Carolina’s redistricting process. While the case covers a faraway state, the situation resembles Pennsylvania’s: A conservative legislature drew electoral boundaries, then a state court threw them out as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

Lawmakers challenged the ruling, arguing that their power as a legislature can overrule even the courts when making election decisions. It’s a once-fringe doctrine called the “independent state legislature” theory.

There’s no guarantee of the Supreme Court’s eventual ruling. But if the justices rule in favor of the lawmakers, they could effectively empower state lawmakers to overpower their courts and set whatever maps they like.

Such a ruling could lock in whoever runs a state, letting the party in power draw its own maps that lock in majorities. That would represent an edge for the GOP, which controls 30 of 50 state legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s.

Pennsylvania’s redistricting process isn’t controlled directly by lawmakers. Instead, a five-member commission runs the process, with a chair chosen by the (currently Democratic-leaning) state Supreme Court.

Efforts are underway to change that, however. Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, proposed a constitutional amendment this year that would do away with the court appointment, potentially tipping future commissions toward his party.

Gun law shows

across-the-aisle limits

Last week’s passage of a gun-control bill in Washington showed the limits of gun reform — and the party divide that can limit even supposedly bipartisan changes.

The bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden last week, followed negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders in the wake of the May 24 Uvalde, Texas school massacre. Democratic leaders celebrated the legislation, which directs money to safety programs and provides incentives for states to pass so-called red flag laws that allow courts to temporarily restrict guns for those deemed a threat.

The law also expands restrictions on gun ownership for people convicted of domestic abuse.

“This package represents the most significant action to prevent gun violence in nearly three decades,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Said after its passage in a 234-193 House vote.

Even the bipartisan bill faced widespread opposition in the House, however. Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation was split almost precisely along party lines, with only Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, among the 14 GOP members who voted with Democrats.

“You get a lot of blowback on votes like this for sure. But it’s the right thing to do,” Fitzpatrick told 6ABC, a Philadelphia news station.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic delegation was fully in favor of the legislation, which some in the party acknowledged fell far short of their goals.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who has long advocated for bipartisan gun bills, also voted for the legislation, along with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

With Democrats fighting to preserve their slim congressional majorities and Republicans united against stronger gun-law reforms, the bipartisan bill could be the last change of its kind for years.

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

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