Analysis: Pay raises spotlight Capitol tensions
Issue 'cut to heart' of Republican Party
Sunday, November 06, 2005
By Jim O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A Legislature steeped in recriminations returns tomorrow to the messy process of attempting to repeal a controversial state pay raise.
Opposition to the measure has been bipartisan. Hard feelings over the startling legislative reverse crossed party lines, but the rancor is a particular challenge to the Republican leaders who control both chambers. Last week's retreat stirred unusually personal exchanges between senior Republicans in the House and Senate. Beyond the personal tensions within the Capitol, the anti-pay raise campaign spotlighted broader ideological tensions within the GOP in Pennsylvania, as well as nationally.
Among those who claimed vindication in the developments were some of the hard-line conservatives in the party who had long been restive with their leadership's willingness to compromise with a Democratic governor. Those criticisms of the leadership echoed conservative critiques the state's Republican establishment voiced during Rep. Pat Toomey's insurgent challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2002 Republican primary.
"Obviously, there are heightened tensions,'' said Mike Long, a key aide to the Republican leader, Sen. Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair. "This is an emotional issue unlike any I've seen in the 27 years I've worked in the state Capitol."
A critic of his own party's leadership, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, said. "This was an issue that just cut to the heart of the Republican Party and who we are, and who we claim to be.''
Jim Powers, the Republican chairman of Butler County, said he had been frustrated that only about 20 percent of the GOP's state committee had been willing to sign a letter he circulated denouncing the salary measure.
"It was a little disappointing that a lot of people were listening to party leaders and not principles,'' said Mr. Powers. He said the issue reflected divisions between the party leadership and its rank and file in the Specter-Toomey race, in which the veteran incumbent barely survived despite the united support of senior Republicans from President Bush on down.
"Toomey won the county handily, something like 60-40,'' he said. "But I think the [local] state committee at that time voted 5-1 for Specter. It was totally lopsided compared to the popular vote out there.''
Chris Lilik, the organizer of Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania, was in the Toomey cadres before he joined with activists from all over the political spectrum to stir up opposition to the pay raise. He argues that the issue was emblematic of a Republican leadership whose actions had flouted Republican principles. He cited leadership votes for the tax increases included in the Rendell administration's first budget.
"It's similar to what we see at the national level. We're told we have to support Republicans or there'll be too much government spending, but look what Congress has done. ... it discredits Republicans; it discredits conservatives; it makes us look bad.''
At the state level, Metcalfe said, "Many of us have been saying we needed to change direction, rather than give Rendell almost everything he's been asking for, things that work against the Republican Party's principles.''
Sen Jane Earll, R-Erie, disputed that analysis.
"It's an unfair characterization to say that this leadership has bent over for the policies of Ed Rendell,'' she said.
Sen. Earll noted that the more conservative Republicans had been particularly visible and outspoken during and since the Specter-Toomey contest. She added, however, that "The conservative wing of the party has to recognize that they are a wing of the party; they are not the entire Republican Party.''
The Erie senator said that legislative leaders will inevitably frustrate some members, noting their more conservative constituency exists alongside more moderate lawmakers, such as the delegations from the state's southeastern corner.
"It's a difficult challenge to be in leadership and that's a natural tension that you see nationally and statewide,'' she said. "Typically, it's the two extremes that drive the agendas; it's the leadership that has to work out compromise somewhere in the middle ... it's still a diverse party, like it or not; that's nothing new or unique.''
Mr. Long, Jubelirer's aide, maintained that the agenda that the leadership has been promoting, while previously overshadowed by the pay raise controversy, had the potential to unite the Republicans. "We have an aggressive pro-taxpayer agenda that includes property tax relief that I think will be real and significant,'' he said. "After the House acts and [the repeal of the pay raise] goes to the governor, this will soon be behind us.''
But even if the Republicans can increase their common ground on other policies including property tax relief and a taxpayer bill of rights being promoted by the Republican caucus, strained personal relationships will remain after four months in which Jubelirer was first among those aggressively pushing a pay raise, then reversed himself to the chagrin of some leadership colleagues who still supported it.
Adding to the tensions are the lawmakers who had reluctantly voted for it only under leadership pressure, and the opponents who had seen normal legislative business totally overshadowed by the controversy.
"I've been here nine years and I've never seen anything like this,'' said Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Franklin. "We've had divisive, painful issues in the past, and this one is painful.''
White, who voted against the original measure, said that it had been ill-timed, was too large and particularly unjustified after a legislative year that she viewed as spare on accomplishment.
She insisted nonetheless that Republican leaders should be given credit for doing the right thing, even if their conversion was tardy.
"Frankly, that took some courage,'' she said. "The public should recognize that they did listen to public opinion and changed course.''
While acknowledging the challenge of moving beyond the pay raise imbroglio, her colleague, Sen. Earll, stressed the need to do so quickly.
"This issue has dominated everything since July 7, one way or another we had to get it off the radar screen,'' she said, "But clearly, I'm not sitting here pretending that relationships are not frayed. But tempers will calm and we can work through it.''
If not, she said, the implications of the controversy could have more enduring consequences.
"This family feud doesn't help candidates and we need to be reminded that we do have the same goals and compromise is sometimes required,'' she said. "You don't get 100 percent of what you want in the political arena ... no group gets all of what they want. Sometimes you have to take half a loaf.''
--------------------------------------- (Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562.)
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