Dispute over Pa. House special elections, control likely heading to court

York Dispatch

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HARRISBURG — Democrats say they are now in control of the Pennsylvania House after their top leader had herself sworn in a month before the new legislative session begins in order to schedule three critical special elections.

Republican leaders called the move a “paperwork insurrection,” and a top GOP source indicated the increasingly messy dispute would end up in court.

“We've had an agenda to defend democracy for a long time, and we finally will get ready to enact it as we go into 2023,” state House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia said Wednesday.

According to a video shared by state House Democrats, a Delaware County judge swore state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) in on Wednesday during an unpublicized ceremony on the floor of the chamber. That means she is now the presiding officer of the state House until the new session begins on Jan. 3, her office said.

The move comes with major legal question marks as legislative leaders wage a war of words over whether Democrats’ control is just on paper or a political reality hamstrung by unprecedented circumstances.

Democrats won 102 seats in the 203-member body on Nov. 8, which party leaders say gives them control of the chamber. However, three of those seats are vacant as of Wednesday.

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One Democratic winner died a month before Election Day — too close to Nov. 8 to remove his name from the ballot — while two others won races for Congress and lieutenant governor and formally resigned their state House seats Wednesday.

After being sworn in Wednesday, McClinton scheduled special elections for February to fill those three seats, which Democrats have easily won in the past. She cited a 2004 precedent in which a top Republican had himself sworn in early to schedule an election to fill a sudden vacancy. (In that case, Republicans had a majority before and after the November election, and retained it even with the vacancy.)

Republican leaders said Wednesday that McClinton had no right to make the move despite the party’s Nov. 8 wins.

Democrats are admitting they only have 99 members by calling special elections yet they are also “creating internal confusion by simultaneously speciously alleging they have a fake, gerrymandered majority that has the authority to conduct the business of the House,” Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said in a statement.

Before the last two-year session ended in November, Cutler — then serving as speaker of the state House — called a special election to fill one of the vacant Democratic seats.

However, the Pennsylvania Department of State told Cutler in a letter Wednesday that he lacked the legal authority to call an election in the 32nd House District, which was last represented by state Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny) who died in early October.

The current fight over who has the power to call these special elections is leading up to an even bigger showdown on Jan. 3, when the new legislative session begins and lawmakers are sworn in.

Meanwhile, York County Republican state Rep. Dawn Keefer circulated a co-sponsorship memo Wednesday calling for the removal of House Chief Clerk Brooke Wheeler.

"Wheeler," she said, in a written statement, "must be removed from her office for abetting and recognizing this attempt at an illegitimate power grab."

Rep. Dawn Keefer discusses concerns as York County Commissioners meet with state lawmakers and poll workers to discuss last weeks election as well as  address necessary improvements needed for future elections, at the York County Administrative Center in York City, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

On that day, lawmakers usually elect a new speaker, who has the power to moderate floor debate, call up bills for votes, name powerful committee chairs, and schedule special elections.

Democrats are expected to have 99 members to Republicans’ 101 on swearing-in day.

If 200 members are present, it will take 101 votes to name a new speaker (the position is elected by a simple majority of members who are in office and able to vote on any given day).

That means Republicans have the numbers to elect their own speaker. However, it’s unclear who the party would offer as a candidate — Cutler has said it won’t be him.

Democrats have already agreed to make McClinton their speaker candidate, but in order for her to win the position, she will need to get at least two Republicans on board.

McClinton told reporters Wednesday that she was looking forward to getting support from Democrats and Republicans to officially become the next speaker to “respect the will of the voters of Pennsylvania.” She previously said she expects Republicans to cede their votes to her, as Democrats have done for GOP speaker candidates in the past when the party holds a majority.

If McClinton becomes speaker, she’d be the first woman to helm the institution in its 240-plus years.

The Pennsylvania legislature is currently not in session. Under the state constitution, a two-year session ends on Nov. 30 in the years when all state House lawmakers are on the ballot. A new session begins on the first Tuesday in January of the following year.

The month in between sessions is typically quiet. Lawmakers circulate memos seeking support for their legislation, outgoing lawmakers clean out their offices, and leaders engage in quiet negotiations over rules changes or other legislative miscellanea behind closed doors — far away from TV cameras and social media.

Capitol observers expected that the chamber’s close margin would necessitate compromise and bipartisanship.

Cutler and McClinton did meet on Monday to discuss how to proceed considering the tight margin, both parties said. McClinton told reporters Wednesday morning that the meeting was positive and productive, but that the sides could not work out an agreement.

She declined to go into further detail about the conversation.

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