Impeachment rules the day, but Pennsylvania lawmakers push bipartisan initiatives
Impeachment proceedings continue to divide much of the country and seemingly the whole of Congress, with predictable partisan stances sounding loudly in the overarching narrative.
Firmly in President Trump’s corner has been U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a first-term Republican from Peters, Washington County, who has repeatedly dismissed the process as an illegitimate “partisan attempt to undo the will of the people.”
Representing the congressional district due north in Southwestern Pennsylvania is Conor Lamb, a Mt. Lebanon Democrat in his second year in Congress. He voted to approve the impeachment inquiry but maintains he will wait to see the evidence before deciding whether it merits impeachment.
But the two young lawmakers — Reschenthaler, 36, and Lamb, 35 — say they continue to cooperate on shared priorities, despite political differences and fear that the process dominating headlines is driving Americans even further apart.
“I’m very troubled by the state of politics,” Reschenthaler said. “We are far too divided as a society.”
He also is frustrated by the time that impeachment proceedings are consuming.
The same thing happened during the 1973 Watergate hearings of Republican President Richard Nixon and again during the impeachment proceedings of Democratic President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, said David Chambers, chairman of the political science department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
“Once you engage in an impeachment inquiry, it overshadows everything. It takes on the character of an ‘us against them’ thing. And everything grinds to a halt,” Chambers said.
Reschenthaler pointed to three bills he co-sponsored with Democrats that have landed on the back burner as impeachment has come to dominate the calendar.
The federal Clean Slate bill that he and Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat, introduced last spring would create a process for people convicted of nonviolent federal drug crimes to have those records sealed.
A second bill would permit service members to sue the federal government for medical malpractice, something from which military doctors are exempted. Reschenthaler — a Navy veteran — joined four Democrats and two Republicans to introduce the measure.
Reschenthaler and Lamb joined on a third bill that would provide student loan forgiveness for permanently disabled military veterans.
The basics, as Reschenthaler explained: “If you’re a veteran and you’re 100% disabled, you have your student loans forgiven.” Given a House vote, it “could pass,” he said.
Lamb agreed, noting even President Trump is on their side — pending the passage of a law.
In August, the president signed an executive action ordering the Education Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs to speed up student loan forgiveness for permanently disabled veterans. Some 25,000 wounded veterans could save $30,000, on average, through the process, Trump said.
If their bill is still sitting there in a year, Lamb — a Marine Corps veteran — said he will be disappointed. His bigger worry is that voters will lose confidence in government if they believe that no one is willing to compromise for the greater good.
“It’s very important for people to know that Guy and I are working on this together and that the administration sees this the same way we do,” Lamb said.
He said he’s encouraged that there are a number of areas, including energy policy, where that kind of bipartisan work is being done behind the scenes.
That attitude may reflect a long history of seeking a middle road in Pennsylvania politics, said Chris Borick, a political scientist and pollster at Allentown’s Muhlenberg College.
As a political novice, Lamb took that road two years ago in a special election to fill the 18th District seat of U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, an eight-term Upper St. Clair Republican who resigned amid an extramarital scandal. Lamb won the congressional district in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, long held by Republicans, as a conservative Democrat. Last year, he won a new two-year term in a newly configured 17th Congressional District.
“As a purple state, at least at the statewide level, we haven’t really been supportive of ideologues in our politics,” Borick said. “Our governors haven’t been far right or far left.”
The same has mostly held true for Pennsylvania’s choices for U.S. Senate, he said, with a lone exception — Rick Santorum.
”And when he tried to govern from a more extreme point, he lost by 16 points” in the 2006 election, Borick said.
Finding common ground
In the U.S. Senate, Bob Casey and Pat Toomey often tout their ability to cross the aisle to press shared priorities.
And where impeachment is concerned, the Scranton Democrat and Lehigh Valley Republican have been among the more moderate Senate voices.
Casey has supported the impeachment inquiry and called Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy a “textbook case of abuse of power.” But he has shied away from demanding the president’s ouster.
Toomey has broken with Trump on tariffs and foreign policy. He also has been measured in his approach to impeachment. Toomey said the president’s interactions with Zelenskiy may have been inappropriate but said he has yet to see anything that rises to an impeachable offense. At the same time, he has vowed to weigh the evidence carefully, should the House return articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial.
Casey broke with Toomey over three Trump federal appellate court nominees (who were later confirmed to the court) and Toomey blocked an Obama nominee from being considered for confirmation. But the two Pennsylvania senators have joined to successfully vet and recommend two dozen appointees to U.S. District courts in Pennsylvania since 2011.
Over that time, only two states have seated more federal judges — New York, with two Democrats in the Senate, and Texas, with two Republicans.
“It’s a tough political environment, and what Sen. Casey and I try to do is when we’ve got a vacancy on the federal bench, for instance, or another issue that’s important to Pennsylvania, try to put aside the areas where we disagree — we’ve got plenty of them — and focus on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Toomey said.
Casey and Toomey also stress their shared legislative priorities.
“Since 2011, Sen. Toomey and I have worked together to fill 24 federal district court vacancies in Pennsylvania,” Casey said. “It’s important to be able to work across the aisle to find common ground on behalf of Pennsylvania.”
Fruits of that partnership also include efforts to increase nursing home accountability, protect children from online predators and guarantee education benefits to the children of fallen law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS workers.
It remains unclear whether public polarization over impeachment proceedings will impede such partnerships.
“When this narrative overtakes everything else, it kind of forces (lawmakers) to retreat into their partisan camps,” Chambers said.
In at least one instance, it brought those on the opposite sides of the aisle closer for a while, Borick said.
“After Watergate, there was a sense of moving on and trying to repair the institutional and structural damage that had been done. You saw some of that happen in the 1970s in terms of reforms,” Borick said. “But in the Clinton impeachment, you had a lot of partisan divide left over from (former House Speaker Newt) Gingrich and the ‘Contract With America.’ That has left a lasting legacy in American politics for a quarter of a century.
“In this case, we’re far down that road. I think there is still some goodwill across the aisle. You see that with Bob Casey and Pat Toomey and some members of the House. Once this clears, they’ll get back to work, but that doesn’t mean the divide will be healed.”
Borick said it will be a factor in the coming election year.
Lamb said we need to look to the original national motto for direction in the wake of division: “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “out of many, one.”
“The founders understood this country was going to have a lot of different people,” Lamb said. “So we always have to have that mindset that out of many, we would have one.”
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .