Who will lead the Pennsylvania House? Lawmakers will soon decide as power struggle continues

An aerial view of lawmakers in Pennsylvania's Capitol

An aerial view of lawmakers in Pennsylvania's Capitol. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania’s state House are scheduled to elect a new speaker Tuesday. But unlike in most legislative sessions, it’s not clear who it will be, what party they’ll be from, or even how long they’ll serve.

Also up in the air is whether a normally ceremonial day of swearings-in and celebrations will be overshadowed by political maneuvering as Democrats and Republicans vie for control in the closely divided chamber.

After a dozen years with the state House under firm Republican control, November’s midterm elections brought Democrats an unexpected 102 to 101 majority in the 203-member chamber. But since then, the question of which party will actually have power in the new session has veered into unprecedented territory.

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That’s thanks to several vacancies in seats Democrats won and a disagreement over who has the authority to schedule special elections to fill those openings.

All questions won’t be answered on Jan. 3, but at least a few will, including which party’s candidate will have enough support to helm the chamber until at least February, and whether either party will manage to give themselves a bureaucratic upper hand — at least temporarily — via the rules process.

A functional majority

There are a couple of facts on which everyone in the state House agrees: Democrats won more seats in November, but on Jan. 3, Republicans are expected to have 101 members to Democrats’ 99 — a functional majority.

There’s also broad agreement that special elections will have to be held in the coming months to fill these vacancies. One of those elections will happen on Feb. 7 to replace state Rep. Tony DeLuca, who died before winning reelection to Allegheny County’s 32nd District. The district is heavily Democratic, and the party is favored to keep the seat.

Legislative leaders, however, remain divided on when to schedule elections to fill two other Democratic vacancies in Allegheny County. They were left after members Austin Davis and Summer Lee won reelection, then resigned because they’d also been elected to other positions — lieutenant governor and member of Congress, respectively.

Those seats are also heavily favored to stay in Democratic hands.

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Democrats want to fill those two seats on Feb. 7, as well. Republicans want to wait until the May primary, which would keep the seats empty as long as legally possible. The state’s appellate courts are expected to decide who has the authority to make that decision.

Complicating the math even further, Republican state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver is running to fill an open seat in the state Senate and will resign from the state House if she wins — a likely scenario. That special election is on Jan. 31, and her resignation will follow as soon as the results are certified. After that, the speaker — whoever that is — will set a special election date.

In practice, this all means Republicans will almost certainly keep a one or two-vote functional advantage until at least Feb. 7. GOP members have told Spotlight PA they hope to use this majority to advance a few wide-reaching constitutional amendments, including one that would require all voters to present ID at the polls.

If Democrats get their choice of special election dates for all three of their vacancies and successfully keep the seats under their control, they’ll likely retake the majority after Feb. 7.

If Republicans get their way, the House could end up tied 100 to 100 after February’s special election, with the chamber deadlocked for at least a few months.

Joanna McClinton raises her hand
Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), who will be a nominee for speaker, has argued that her party is rightfully in the majority despite its vacancies. (Jose F. Moreno/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Who could be speaker?

The speaker of the state House controls the chamber, with the power to moderate floor debate, decide which bills get votes, pick members to chair committees, and schedule special elections.

In past sessions, the party with more lawmakers has generally picked the speaker from within its ranks. But when the numbers are close, things get complicated.

The most notorious example in recent memory came in 2007, after Democrats won a narrow majority but were unable to unite their caucus behind a single candidate for speaker. Instead, a majority of Democrats allied with Republicans on a power-sharing agreement in which they nominated and supported a moderate member of the GOP, Denny O’Brien, who pledged to work closely with Democrats.

This year’s power struggle is even more convoluted, as the chamber currently has more Republicans, but Democrats have a good chance of reclaiming a majority within weeks or months.

Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), who will be a nominee for speaker, has argued that her party is rightfully in the majority despite its vacancies. She told reporters she expects GOP lawmakers to cede their votes to her, as is customary when one party holds the majority — which Republicans counter she doesn’t have.

Democrats could also try to convince a few Republicans to vote for a compromise candidate, but it’s unclear, for now, if such a person will emerge.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), who served as state House speaker last session, has said he won’t run for the role, and other members of GOP leadership haven’t expressed interest either. State Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R., Allegheny) is so far the only Republican who has publicly thrown her hat in the ring for the speakership.

It’s very possible that whoever is elected speaker at the start of the session will only be in the role temporarily.

In sessions past, lawmakers have generally agreed that a new speaker can be elected at any time if a majority of members decide they want different leadership — and these power grabs aren’t unprecedented. If Democrats claim a numerical advantage, there’s a good chance they can install their own speaker even if they don’t win this week’s power struggle.

But some Democrats have raised alarm that, with their current functional majority, Republicans could tweak chamber rules to undercut Democrats’ control, even if they take the majority.

What are the rules?

At the start of every new two-year session, the state House and Senate adopt rules that will govern lawmakers’ actions. These rules dictate things like the size and partisan makeup of committees, and the process by which bills are voted and passed. They also cover more mundane housekeeping matters, like banning smoking on the state House floor.

Most rules don’t change much from year to year, but minor adjustments can make a big difference.

Good-government groups have, for instance, sought in recent years to make it more difficult for committee chairs to single-handedly block bills that they personally oppose.

In this case of state House control, some Democrats say they’re worried Republicans could pass rules that increase GOP power on committees, or raise the bar for calling a new leadership election — likely, by requiring a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority.

Still, Democrats can likely make their own rule changes if they reclaim a majority.

Spokespeople for both the Republican and Democratic caucuses declined to comment on those possibilities.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

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