By Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Pennsylvania lawmakers face a court-ordered deadline on Friday to submit a new congressional map, after the existing one was struck down for being illegally drawn to benefit Republicans, a ruling that could reshape the 2018 electoral battle for Congress.
The legislature's Republican leaders were scrambling late on Thursday to produce boundaries that could win consensus among members as well as the approval of the state's Democratic governor, Tom Wolf.
In a 5-2 vote along party lines, the Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out the old map on Jan. 22, ruling that the Republican-controlled legislature violated the state constitution by manipulating the lines to marginalize Democratic voters.
The Pennsylvania fight is one of several across the United States over gerrymandering, in which lawmakers design legislative districts to weaken the power of the opposing party's voters. Critics say the practice skews elections while intensifying political polarization.
Pennsylvania has long been seen by experts as one of the worst offenders. The 7th Congressional District, in particular, has been derided as "Goofy Kicking Donald Duck" for its bizarre, twisting outline.
The court gave lawmakers until Friday to submit a map to Wolf, who has until Feb. 16 to accept or reject it. Otherwise, the court will draw its own map with an independent expert.
Republicans have held 13 of the state's 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives since the current map went into effect for the 2012 election, despite Pennsylvania's status as a closely divided swing state.
New districts will likely increase Democratic chances to win back several seats. The party needs to capture 24 seats nationwide to retake control of the House in November elections.
Republicans criticized the court's majority for waiting until Wednesday to issue a 139-page opinion fully outlining its legal reasoning.
"I can't guarantee that we'll have anything to submit tomorrow," Neal Lesher, a spokesman for Pennsylvania House of Representatives Speaker Mike Turzai, said on Thursday.
It is already too late to pass a formal bill by Friday, Lesher said. One option would be to create a map that is broadly acceptable to lawmakers and submit it directly to Wolf for review.
Republicans have also not ruled out filing a federal lawsuit challenging the court's authority to draw its own map, should it come to that. The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected an emergency appeal from Republican lawmakers challenging the state court's ruling.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)