Closed-door talks fail to settle Pa. state House control fight

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)

A day of closed-door negotiations failed Wednesday to settle a dispute between Republican and Democratic leaders in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives about when to hold three special elections that will determine control of their chamber.

Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer told lawyers for Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, the House Republican leader, and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, that she will speed consideration of the case.

“These are very, very thorny issues and cannot easily be resolved in a day,” she said when attorneys returned to the courtroom at day’s end. “I believe progress has been made.”

Cutler sued earlier this month after McClinton sought to schedule special elections for all three races on Feb. 7. Cutler has also sought to schedule the special elections — one for Feb. 7 and the other two for the May primary.

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Democrats picked up a net of 12 seats in last month’s election, the minimum needed to reclaim majority control of the House after more than a decade in the minority. That left Democrats with 102 representatives to Republicans’ 101, but the three vacancies have given the GOP hopes of maintaining majority status early next year, if only for a few weeks or several months.

One of the Democrats’ reelected incumbents, 85-year-old Rep. Tony DeLuca, died of cancer in October. Two others, Reps. Summer Lee and Austin Davis, recently resigned after being elected to Congress and as lieutenant governor.

All three vacancies are Democratic-leaning districts in Allegheny County, where elections officials have begun the preliminary work needed to hold the special elections on Feb. 7.

Cohn Jubelirer’s determination to resolve the impasse had been telegraphed on Friday, when her court issued a “directive” for the Wednesday status conference, telling the parties to try to settle and be ready to tell her about those efforts.

Pennsylvania state Rep. Joanna McClinton smiles outside Independence Hall
Pennsylvania state Rep. Joanna McClinton smiles outside Independence Hall on Nov. 9, 2022, after Democratic lawmakers announce they have won the majority in the state House. McClinton will become the next House speaker. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
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When the court proceeding began, the two sides indicated they were close to an agreement setting the election to fill DeLuca’s vacancy for Feb. 7. But they gave no indication the sides were near a deal regarding the Lee and Davis seats. Cohn Jubelirer then ushered the lawyers out of the courtroom for what became a lengthy negotiation involving a mediator.

Late Wednesday, she said the parties would present her with a document regarding the DeLuca special election by noon Friday and laid out other deadlines for legal filings.

Cohn Jubelirer vowed to “do this all as quickly as possible, understanding that the Allegheny County Board of Elections, particularly, will need to know if at all possible prior to the 11th or 13th of January.”

Cutler had sued to get Commonwealth Court to stop the Lee and Davis special elections from taking place on Feb. 7.

The House plans to meet Jan. 3 to swear in members and elect a speaker for the 2023-24 session. Cutler, who held the speakership until Nov. 30, does not want the job, but McClinton does.

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Brooke Schultz, a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative, contributed. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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