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Pennsylvania lawmakers won't meet deadline to vote on congressional map

| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 9:45 p.m.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — Republican leaders in the Pennsylvania Legislature said Thursday they would not be able to meet a court-ordered deadline to hold a vote on a replacement map for the state's congressional districts, but they still hoped to develop a plan in the coming days.

Aides to the top-ranking GOP lawmakers, House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, said they may send Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf a map by Friday's deadline without a vote in either chamber, and then attempt to pass it as legislation in the following days.

“I think the ball's in our court — I think we have a responsibility to stake out ground,” said Drew Crompton, Scarnati's top aide.

Ruling in a gerrymandering case, the five Democratic members of the state Supreme Court on Jan. 22 declared Pennsylvania's 2011 congressional district map violated the state constitution by giving Republicans an unfair partisan advantage in campaigns. The court gave the General Assembly until Friday to send a replacement to Wolf, who would then have until Feb. 15 to submit it to the justices if he supports it.

Crompton said factors the Republican leaders are considering as they draw a replacement map include minimizing the number of voters being shifted into new districts, making districts more compact and reducing divisions of municipalities and counties.

“I just don't think you should do wholesale changes just because this is an opportunity to do a new map,” Crompton said.

He said another objective is to keep incumbents in their districts, but that may not happen in every case.

Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott was noncommittal about the prospect of getting new maps from Scarnati and Turzai on Friday, followed by an effort to pass the plan as a bill.

“In the event that the General Assembly does not pass a fair map by the court-ordered deadline, Gov. Wolf will evaluate his options,” Abbott said.

The court's majority opinion, issued Wednesday, said that if Wolf and the Legislature get a deal, the court's role is over unless someone challenges the constitutionality of that map.

If they don't, wrote Democratic Justice Debra Todd, the court will accept proposals from parties to the case and produce its own map. The court majority has said to expect a new map by Feb. 19.

“Virtually every other state that has considered the issue looked, when necessary, to the state judiciary to exercise its power to craft an affirmative remedy and formulate a valid reapportionment plan,” Todd wrote .

The Republican-crafted district map, drawn after the 2010 census to adjust to population changes, has produced a 13-5 edge for Republicans in all three of the ensuing congressional election cycles, although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and Democrats hold the governorship and three statewide elected row offices.

A group of registered Democratic voters sued in June to challenge the constitutionality of the maps, and after a fact-gathering trial in December, the court threw out the districts.

One of Pennsylvania's 18 congressional seats is vacant, following the resignation in October of Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, who sparked a sex scandal. A special election for that seat will be held March 13 using the existing map.

Five other incumbents have announced they are not seeking re-election — four Republicans and a Democrat.

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