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EXPLAINER: After acquittal, Trump 2024? Maybe not so fast

Associated Press

President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally July 17, 2019, at Williams Arena in Greenville, N.C.

Toomey, who once unified the GOP, now on the outs over Trump

HARRISBURG – Before he became the object of fury of Republicans for voting to convict Donald Trump during the former president’s second impeachment trial, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania was once the insurgent from the right.

It is now Toomey facing angry rank-and-file state Republican Party committee members and the potential of a censure vote, a symbolic gesture that may have no real effect on the senator since he isn’t seeking reelection next year.

Toomey, who once endorsed challenges to Republican officeholders who weren’t seen as conservative enough, is now urging Republicans to be tolerant of a difference of opinion over whether Trump and his long campaign of falsehoods to discredit the election result is to blame for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“I understand that most Republicans probably disagree with the conclusion that I came to,” Toomey said during a Thursday radio appearance on WPHT-AM in Philadelphia. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for the party to be deciding that they’re going to censure a particular elected Republican over a particular vote, and I think it sends a bad message to the many Republicans, even if they’re in the minority, the many Republicans who do agree with what I’ve done here.”

Toomey last Saturday became one of seven Republicans who voted to convict Trump of “incitement of insurrection,” even though the vote to convict ultimately fell 10 votes short of the two-thirds majority, or 67, necessary in the U.S. Senate.

The state GOP chair, Lawrence Tabas, promptly emailed state party committee members to tell them he was planning a meeting to discuss the Senate’s action.

That meeting – if it happens – is expected to involve a censure resolution, as a wave of county parties, including Washington and Greene, have already voted to censure Toomey.

Some even voted to censure Toomey before he cast his impeachment vote, seeing disloyalty in his assessment that Trump had committed “impeachable offenses” on Jan. 6 and his vote to endorse the constitutionality of a post-presidency impeachment trial.

Tabas and the party brass have kept silent this week, as Toomey supporters have begun to push back.

A state committee member from Erie County, Jezree Friend, emailed members to try to talk them out of holding a censure vote.

The party should not require a “Trump litmus test” to show loyalty, he said, calling it divisive, damaging to a necessary “big tent” culture and a hallmark of “cancel culture.”

Sam DeMarco, the chair of the Allegheny County Republican Party, said he sees the “bloodthirst” to punish Toomey as counterproductive if the party is to attract new members and concentrate on winning races in the future.

For his part, Toomey said on KDKA-AM radio on Thursday that the party can’t look the other way when a president “tries terrible and illegal and unconstitutional means of staying in power.”

“That’s not acceptable, that’s not conservative, that’s not Republican,” he told the Pittsburgh station.

In 2004, Toomey was the candidate of disaffected conservatives, coming within 17,000 votes of ousting a moderate stalwart of the Senate and of Republican politics in Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter.

Toomey went on to head the Club for Growth, the take-no-prisoners free-market advocacy group where he authored the editorial “In Defense of RINO Hunting,” his argument for primary challenges to Republicans who “strayed from conservative principles.”

By 2010, Specter had switched parties, and Toomey ran again, this time successfully after having unified the party’s conservatives and business class who liked his investment banker background and Ivy League pedigree.

Toomey – whose surprise October announcement he wouldn’t run again was for “personal, not political reasons” – was a favorite of some of the party’s biggest donors. He is fiercely anti-tax and anti-regulation, and a stalwart proponent of free markets and smaller government with a fiscal philosophy to the right of many Republicans in Congress.

The 59-year-old is even-keeled, squeaky clean and a precise public speaker. He is not a back-slapping politician and some party members quietly gripe that he doesn’t get out around the state nearly enough.

He helped author Trump’s tax-cutting bill and backed Trump’s Supreme Court picks. He has opposed some of Trump’s major spending bills and was the only Senate Republican to vote against Trump’s rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But it is his objections to Trump’s conduct that sticks in the craw of Trump’s loyalists, going back to the 2016 campaign, when Toomey was on the ballot with Trump. He refused to say whether he would vote for Trump until he voted an hour before polls closed, ultimately for Trump. He never campaigned with Trump in 2016 and barely appeared on the campaign trail with him in 2020.

On Thursday, WPHT-AM radio host Dom Giordano suggested to Toomey that he voted to impeach Trump because “you’ve had antagonisms toward the president’s style” since 2016 and not because of the “fact pattern.”

“Well, the fact pattern,” Toomey responded, “I think is pretty damning.”

W.Va. to loosen rules after dip in COVID-19 deaths, cases

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has ordered the loosening of pandemic restrictions on businesses after a decline in coronavirus deaths and cases, and he sought the return of all elementary and middle school students to in-person learning.

In a flurry of announcements, the governor on Friday said small businesses and grocery stores can double their allowed capacity and the limit on social gatherings will go up from 25 to 75 people. Bars and restaurants can allow 75% of seating capacity, up from 50%, if social distancing is possible.

Justice said all teachers and school workers over the age of 50 who accepted the offer for a vaccine will be given their second doses next week. He said he is asking the school State Board of Education to bring all students from kindergarten to eighth grade back to classrooms.

Justice said “without any question” parents would still have the right to keep their students at home with virtual learning.

“I truly believe you’ve got to move on,” said Justice, adding mask-wearing is still required in public. “Without any question, we would all be really foolish if we didn’t think things could slip back, and if they slip back, we have to adjust” restrictions.

The loosening of rules comes as deaths linked to the coronavirus have nosedived 70% in six weeks and cases plummet. Currently 14.5% of the state’s 1.78 million population have received at least one of the vaccine doses, and 8.7% of residents are fully vaccinated, the second highest rate in the country.

There were 187 confirmed coronavirus cases reported Friday. Hospitalizations are down 64% from a peak in early January to 293 patients.

The state has not reported the detection of any of the coronavirus variants yet. The state’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said the current vaccines appear to offer protection from variants, citing studies from Israel.

Justice said his executive orders on businesses and social gatherings would take effect at midnight. Justice said the cap on bars and restaurants could be entirely lifted within weeks, barring a surge in cases.

The number of patrons grocery stores can allow in stores will rise from 3 to 6 people per 1,000 square feet. Retail and small business shops will be able to take in 4 people per 1,000 square feet, up from 2 people.

Live music performances will also be allowed again, barring vocals and wind instruments, the governor said.

The State Board of Education will decide on the governor’s recommendation for elementary and middle schools to return to in-person full time. The board’s next scheduled meeting is Tuesday.

Union leader Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said his first concern is when teachers under the age of 50 will be offered vaccines and receive both doses. He said he is also worried about whether guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for schools reopening can be followed.

The shipment of vaccine doses to West Virginia slowed this week due to winter weather. State data show 24,200 new first doses were received, down about 4,600 from the previous week.

“It has been clearly a challenging week for us with the weather, both nationally and in the state,” said James Hoyer, a retired major general leading the state’s coronavirus task force, at the governor’s press conference.

He said some doses from vaccine developer Moderna were delayed. Additional doses to Walgreens, which is participating in a new federal program to ship doses directly to pharmacies, are also delayed for next week.

Hoyer added some vaccination clinics have been pushed back to Sunday and Monday.

I-79 bridge at Bridgeville could end up being tolled under state plan

It’s estimated that the Interstate 79 corridor carries 87,000 vehicles every day, and if a proposal by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) comes to fruition, the drivers rocketing through in those cars and trucks could end up paying a toll of $1 or $2 when they cross the bridge near the Bridgeville exit.

The tolls would be collected in order to pay for the replacement of the northbound and southbound bridges that were first put in place 56 years ago and were last rehabilitated in 1998. It would also help pay for widening I-79 in that area.

The project is one of nine large-scale interstate bridge projects the state is looking at paying for through tolls rather than the gas tax, which is how road and transportation projects have been funded in Pennsylvania.

Construction would not get underway until 2023 at the earliest. Nevertheless, it has already generated controversy, with some elected officials from the area saying brakes need to be firmly applied when it comes to that span being tolled.

PennDOT unveiled its plans Thursday. The proposed work on I-79 is part of its Pathways Major Bridge Public-Private Partnership Initiative. It envisions private entities handling the design, construction and maintenance of major bridges across the commonwealth, with tolls paying for the work. Proponents argue that tolls would free up scarce transportation dollars for local bridges and roads. They also contend that the gas tax is simply not cutting it as a way to help pay for large-scale transportation projects. The amount of revenue that’s collected has declined as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, and revenue has declined in the last year as the COVID-19 pandemic has led many workers to clock-in at home and cut back on commuting and other forms of travel.

They also argue that PennDOT’s annual budget for bridge maintenance and construction is close to $7 billion, less than half of the $15 billion that is needed.

According to PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian, “Our reliance on funding models from the last century leaves us especially vulnerable to fund losses stemming from volatile economic conditions and the increasing transition to alternative-fuel or electric vehicles. This initiative will help us make much-needed improvements without compromising the routine projects our communities and industry partners rely on.”

Drivers would pay the tolls through E-Z Pass or license plate billing. Exact rates will be determined once negotiations with contractors are complete, according to Alexis Campbell, a spokeswoman for PennDOT. The tolls would cover the costs of construction, maintenance, operations and toll collections.

The other bridges under consideration are located in Berks, Clarion, Luzerne, Jefferson, Carbon, Susquehanna, Dauphin and Philadelphia counties.

The bridge on I-79 is in South Fayette Township, and township spokeswoman Andrea Iglar released a statement saying the township opposes tolling it because “it would hamper much-desired commercial development in the area.”

The statement continued, “South Fayette businesses and residents value our convenient highway access, and implementing a new toll would be a step backward.”

State Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Bridgeville, said he was concerned that if the bridge was tolled, drivers would seek alternate routes and clog those roads. It would then create safety issues for drivers and first responders.

“As one of the fastest developing areas in Allegheny County and Southwest Pennsylvania, this proposal would have catastrophic effects on the current and future business development in a region that has seen recent growth and significant investments,” Robinson said. “Not only does this proposal reduce the ability of this region to be competitive in attracting new businesses, but it is a major deterrent to existing employers looking to expand or relocate.”

State Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Carroll, serves on the Senate Transportation Committee, and said she would be looking for a different way to fund the bridge projects.

“The tolling proposal cuts right to the heart of Pennsylvania’s ongoing efforts to promote economic development,” she said. “This user fee would increase shipping costs for businesses, both in bringing supplies in and sending products out. The revenue Pennsylvania may gain in tolls could mean the loss of even greater revenues that we could see through business development and job creation.”

State Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Cecil, said he was “stunned” by the proposal, and slammed Gov. Tom Wolf, saying his “reckless proposals are devoid of reality.”

He said he supports the bridge work, but said a different way to fund it should be found.

“To add insult to injury, the tolling is proposed to start in 2023, before construction can even begin,” Ortitay said. “People will be paying for the privilege to travel through a construction zone.”

As part of a study of its environmental impact, PennDOT will examine how tolling the bridge will affect nearby communities, including the impact it will have on traffic. The study is projected to be completed later this year, and its findings will be made available for public review and comment either virtually or through an in-person public meeting.