Pa. GOP seeks May vote on Dem vacancies in state House power struggle

Democrats won barely enough seats in November to reclaim the majority.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler

Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, speaker at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The Pennsylvania House’s Republican leader on Thursday submitted paperwork seeking to wait until the May primary before holding special elections in two vacant districts, the latest move in a power struggle over control of the nearly evenly divided chamber.

Republican Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County sent Allegheny County and the Department of State “writs of election” for Pittsburgh-area seats that became empty last week when Democrats who won reelection resigned after also being elected to Congress and as lieutenant governor.

Cutler had previously also put in a writ of election to hold a Feb. 7 vote for the House’s third open seat in another Allegheny County district. It became vacant because the incumbent, Rep. Tony DeLuca, died of cancer a month before voters returned him to the Legislature in November.

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Cutler’s counterpart, Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, last week moved to schedule all three special elections for Feb. 7.

There is a status conference next week in a Commonwealth Court lawsuit Cutler filed late last week against the Department of State, acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman and the Allegheny County Elections Board, seeking an injunction to prevent the Feb. 7 special elections. Chapman, appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, has informed Cutler she rejected his writ to hold the DeLuca vote on Feb. 7.

After more than a decade in the minority, House Democrats flipped a net of 12 seats in November, giving them a 102-101 majority. But Cutler argues the three vacancies mean McClinton lacks legal authority to claim the mantle of the House’s presiding officer and schedule special elections.

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Cutler argues his chamber currently holds the majority since it is expected to have 101 Republican members to the Democrats’ 99 when they are sworn in and elect a new speaker on Jan. 3.

House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said holding special elections in May would mean residents of the suburban Pittsburgh districts would be without representation in Harrisburg. She said in a statement that Cutler was aiming to “empower the House Republican Caucus to play politics and ram through extremist policies.”

Cutler served as speaker until the last session ended Nov. 30 and has said he does not intend to stand for reelection to the job. No other Republican candidate has emerged publicly. McClinton has said she expects to become the chamber’s first woman speaker.

On Jan. 3, Chief Clerk Brooke Wheeler will preside over the House until members elect a speaker for the 2023-24 session.

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