Changes in state Senate leadership looming

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HARRISBURG -- When Republican senators return to the Capitol on June 5, you'll hear a lot of public discussion about the new state budget and measures to reduce property taxes.

A third subject also will be on the agenda, but you won't hear anything about it aired in public: Who will lead the Republican caucus for the 2007-08 term, which begins Dec. 1?

"It's a fluid situation right now," Sen. John Pippy, R-Moon, said last week. "There are a number of Republican senators interested in leadership roles. There's a lot of talent from different areas of the state. We need to make sure we put together a strong team for the next term."

Mr. Pippy, who quickly added that the Senate's current top priority is enacting a state budget by June 30, wouldn't name names of Senate leadership candidates.

He also wouldn't comment on whether he might be one of those angling for key jobs, which include president pro tempore, majority leader, GOP whip, Republican caucus chairman or chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Two things are known for sure about the Senate leaders in 2007-08: The two guys who have been running the show for years won't be around.

Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer, of Altoona, who's held that job for an extraordinary 20 years, lost his bid for renomination in the May 16 primary, in large part because of his support for the short-lived legislative pay raise in July. The pro tem is the third-highest constitutional office, behind the governor and lieutenant governor.

The second in command, Majority Leader David Brightbill, of Lebanon, lost in the primary for the same reason. For the past six years, he's run the Senate on a day-to-day basis, which gives him clout because he can, in large part, decide when, or if, bills come up for a vote, and how quickly, or slowly, senators will act on an issue.

With the No. 1 and 2 men leaving office in late November, it would seem that the current No. 3 officer, GOP Whip Jeffrey Piccola, of Dauphin, would be a lock to move up. But things in the General Assembly often don't proceed in an obvious way.

Mr. Piccola, who ended his yearlong Republican gubernatorial campaign in January after getting little party support, isn't all that popular within the Republican caucus and is expected to face competition from several colleagues.

They could include Sen. Jake Corman, of Centre, who defeated a GOP challenger to win renomination May 16; Sen. Joseph Scarnati, of Jefferson County, who chairs the Senate Labor and Industry Committee; Sen. Robert Tomlinson, of Bucks, who helped lead the successful 2004 effort to legalize slot machines; or Sen. Dominic Pileggi, of Chester County, part of a powerful Republican area in southeastern Pennsylvania.

And while the top Senate leadership is normally an all-boys club, observers say don't rule out a woman being in the mix this time. Some people's money is on Sen. Jane Earll, of Erie, head of the Senate Finance Committee.

There are three other influential women in the Republican caucus: Jane Orie, of McCandless; Mary Jo White, of Venango; and Pat Vance, of Cumberland.

For senators to speak openly at this point about leadership jobs would be disrespectful, not to mention politically foolish, because Mr. Jubelirer and Mr. Brightbill will be in office for several more months, and both are expected to play key roles in shaping the state budget.

Mr. Corman is keeping his cards close to his vest. He conceded he "would like to be part" of a new leadership team, but said the Senate's "first priority in June, clearly, is to pass a responsible state budget. We need to unify our caucus, pull together and get that done."

Mr. Piccola wouldn't say if he's aiming for the No. 1 or 2 spot, saying his main goal is to support Republican candidates in the fall and "make sure the Republicans continue to be in the majority.''

Currently, they hold a 29-21 advantage over Democrats and are expected to hold onto their power after November, although the margin could change. Two weeks ago, Democrats shocked the GOP in a special Chester County election, when a Democrat won a Senate seat the GOP had held for 100 years.

Geographic coalitions of senators are possible, because it would take at least 15 votes for someone to win if the new Senate contains 29 GOP senators.

Mr. Corman and Mr. Scarnati are from north-central and north-central-western areas, and could work together. There's also potential for a southeastern coalition, comprising, perhaps, Mr. Tomlinson and Mr. Pileggi. GOP senators from Central Pennsylvania also could form a bloc in order to increase their bargaining power.

Also, senators from different geographic areas could band together as a way to getting the 15 votes that will be needed for a team to triumph.

"We have a lot of great people in our caucus," Mr. Pippy said. "My interest will be in making sure Western Pennsylvania is well represented."

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at 717-787-4254 or .


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