By Tara Law
June 29, 2019

The Pennsylvania senate’s state budget negotiations descended into chaos on Wednesday when lawmakers and activists clashed over the elimination of a cash assistance program for the state’s neediest people.

The PA General Assistance Program, which the house voted to end last week, provided roughly $200 a month to about 11,095 of the state’s poorest residents, including many who don’t qualify for other assistance programs or are waiting for approval, Penn Live reported.

The most explosive moment of the debate came when Republicans called for a vote, but Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman instead allowed another Democrat – Katie Muth – to stand and read a letter from a beneficiary of the program.

As Muth tried to read, Republicans – including Republican Majority Leader Jake Corman – began to scream over her.

“Mr. President, your role is to enforce the rules of the senate, not to be a partisan hack,” Corman shouted, demanding that Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, a Republican, let the legislators vote.

Muth later released the letter on Twitter “in case the angry man yelling blocked out some of the words,” she wrote.

 

The Senate ultimately voted to end the program, but not before Democrats and activists showed that they weren’t willing to let the program go quietly.

When the measure was called up, protesters from activist groups such as the Poor People’s Campaign, a national group that aims to fight poverty, disrupted the proceedings.

However, the situation became even more heated when Corman motioned to return to the previous question. The move was a procedural tactic, enabling them avoid discussing a number of amendments proposed by the Democrats, including measures that would have extended the program for people waiting for disability payments and veterans.

While the Democrat who presides over the senate, Fetterman, stepped away from the senate rostrum Scarnati, seized the gavel and ordered the vote to go on.

Fetterman later told Penn Live in a letter that he was appalled that Scarnati had taken the gavel.

“I left the rostrum to talk to the Republican leadership, to try to broker a dignified conclusion to this debate,” Fetterman said.

Scarnati later said at a press conference that he had been trying to maintain the senate’s rules, which he said prohibited the senate from being at ease once a vote is called.

Minority Leader Jay Costa told WHYY that he was taken aback when Scarnati had taken the gavel. “I’ve never seen anything like that happen at all,” he said. He said that he was concerned that the Democrats were not allowed to discuss their amendments.

Despite the ruckus, the senate ultimately managed to bring the bill to a vote, deciding 26-24 to pass the bill to end the program. Two senate Republicans voted with Democrats to oppose the bill.

The senate Republicans later issued a statement on Facebook criticizing the Democrats.

“When our rules are not followed, chaos takes over,” the GOP said. “It was a sad day for good government in Pennsylvania and the actions of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle set a dangerous precedent for the future of an institution that we value so greatly. When we disagree with one another we must do so in a respectful manner.”

Write to Tara Law at tara.law@time.com.

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