Despite a frantic and frustrating legislative week, Gov. Tom Corbett seemed a study in serenity Sunday night as he hosted reporters and legislators for a late-night signing of the state budget -- his third and, as he reminded the crowd, one that was once again delivered on time.
He professed to be unconcerned that its enactment went forward without his big three legislative initiatives -- a transportation funding bill, privatization of the state liquor sales and a reform of the state's rocky pension systems. There would still be plenty of time, he said, for progress on those issues.
The time had run out, he said, only on the first quarter of the legislative session, with many months still available for those and other administrative initiatives.
But the disagreements across and within party lines in Harrisburg in recent weeks underscored the questions on how much time Mr. Corbett has -- to push his agenda through a fractious Legislature and to shore up his chances of winning re-election next year.
His news conference math was correct. Three quarters -- 18 months -- of the legislative session remain. The time and opportunity available to make realistic progress on that agenda may be more limited. The Republican, elected easily with the GOP tide of 2010, retains the state's top job and the theoretical, though clearly not consistent, support of GOP majorities in both chambers.
But Harrisburg officials and analysts of both parties suggested that the time for legislative progress was already winding down and that the chances for administration successes and a potential rebound in Mr. Corbett's political prospects would shrink as attentions turned to elections that will decide whether the House members, half of the Senate and the governor would still be around in 2015.
The lawmakers won't be back until the fall, leaving less than four months before the dawn of an election year.
"After Pennsylvania Society, the [administration's legislative] chances diminish significantly," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant, who heads the Harrisburg firm, Quantum Communications.
He referred to the annual New York City gathering when Pennsylvania's governing class gathers for receptions, speculation and deal-making. This year, it will be awash with the growing field of Democrats vying for the role of challenger to a governor who has consistently posted some of the worst poll numbers of any incumbent.
His predecessor, former Gov. Ed Rendell, believes Mr. Corbett has a little more time. He suggested that the passage of a transportation bill, in particular, in the fall or even early 2014 could create a sense of progress.
"He's got to get transportation done so people see money being spent next summer," Mr. Rendell said.
"I don't think this is fatal," he added. "What does it say about his leadership? I think most people blame the Legislature."
Mr. Rendell also said Mr. Corbett's currently lagging poll numbers don't necessarily foretell his political future.
"Incumbents have two advantages," he said. "They can raise a boatload of money and they have the power to do things -- real things ... going to a disaster and taking charge."
One of the administration's frequent boasts, heard again over the weekend, is that despite the failure to enact some of its signature initiatives, it has delivered a budget on time three years in a row. That's true, but it ignores the dynamic, exploited repeatedly by Mr. Rendell, of using the operating budget process as leverage to extract votes for other favored projects. Mr. Corbett's success in that realm, perhaps ironically, could deprive him of powerful bargaining chips when the lawmakers return.
Referring to the three major proposals left on the table this weekend, Sen. Jay Costa, the Democratic floor leader, said, "It will be difficult to achieve because you don't have the leverage of the budget.
"What the governor allowed to happen was to allow wine and spirits to be linked to transportation," he asserted. "By tying those two together he allowed this to happen. Transportation funding could have passed on its merits."
That analysis mirrors the complaint that some GOP leaders leveled against House Democrats, who would not put up votes to compensate for the lack of unanimity among Republicans on transportation.
Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, the House majority leader, contended that despite the apparent impasses within his own party, the GOP had set the stage for progress in the fall.
"The fact of the matter is there's a lot of good news," he maintained as the lawmakers scattered to their districts.
He cited the House passing the liquor privatization bill and the Senate its transportation funding proposal, as well as committee-level approval in both chambers to switch new state and school workers from the traditional pension to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
"That means that things are significantly teed up for the fall," he said. "We're only one quarter into this session. We have three quarters to go. And in addition we're at the 20-yard line on two of the bills and probably on the 40-yard line for the third. That's pretty effective."
But the difficulty of his task in crossing those goal lines was evident in the reaction of the conservative representative from a neighboring district, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.
"The biggest problem with this process is we lack a strong leader in the executive branch," he said.
Of recent governors, he added, "Corbett is the most conservative, but he's the least effective. ... Corbett's really left it up to the Legislature to lead."
Senior administration officials, on the contrary, see recalcitrant lawmakers as the impediment to leadership.
Michael Barley, Mr. Corbett's campaign manager, contends that the public will come around to appreciate the governor's management through a difficult economic environment.
"For the average voter, what they see is a governor that is implementing the agenda he ran on ... smaller government and lower taxes.
"Unemployment is still going down, energy sector growing, and that wouldn't have happened without Tom Corbett," he said.
"The governor was trying to get some big issues accomplished. Would we have liked to see them pass? Absolutely. [But] Gov. Corbett has been able to get them farther than other governors have in the past; we ran out of time."
Mr. Barley acknowledged the conventional wisdom that Harrisburg deliberations that take place in the fall typically don't yield the results of budget season initiatives. But he said, "A lot of people thought you couldn't get anything done in the fall. We moved Act 13 [the Marcellus Shale impact fee] in the fall of 2013, so things do happen."
Mr. Costa disagrees.
"Anytime the governor fails to enact his own initiatives during the budget season, it certainly does harm his chances of being [re-elected]," he said.
"A lot of that leverage has been lost," said Mr. Gerow, the GOP consultant.
"He will still get the transportation funding; there is bipartisan support for that," he predicted.
"In terms of big ticket reform items, he still hasn't hit the ball over the fence as he'd hoped. It remains to be seen if he can move the runners with singles."