Narrowly divided state House moves slowly to elect speaker

Partisan control of the state House of Representatives is hanging in the balance as Pennsylvania lawmakers arrive at the State Capitol to start a new legislative session.

The Pa. State Capitol building is visible.

The Pennsylvania state Capitol is seen on Dec. 14, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Partisan control of the state House of Representatives hung in the balance Tuesday as Pennsylvania lawmakers pondered their choice of the chamber’s next speaker on the first day of the new two-year legislative session.

State representatives must elect a speaker to serve as their chamber’s presiding officer, but the November election was so close — and complicated by the death of one Allegheny County Democrat and resignations of two others — that what is normally a highly scripted event is instead a moment of drama and uncertainty.

House members were sworn in at noon and had been poised to vote for speaker before the chief clerk, Brooke Wheeler, announced an abrupt halt to the voting session. There was no indication when the speaker vote would take place.

If Democrats can somehow muster a majority, they are very likely to elevate Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, to the speakership. McClinton served as floor leader in 2021-22.

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Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset, confirmed during the extended early afternoon break that he had been designated as the GOP candidate for speaker by his Republican colleagues during a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning.

As chair of the House Liquor Control Committee last year, Metzgar unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to the state constitution that would have fully privatized the state-run system of liquor stores and sales.

Metzgar is starting his eighth term from a rural district that encompasses a large portion of Somerset County, some 70 miles (110 kilometers) southeast of Pittsburgh. A lawyer in Somerset, he has had a Pennsylvania law license since 2007.

His official online biography says Metzgar was raised on a farm and graduated from Berlinbrothers Valley High School in Berlin, Frostburg State University in Maryland and Duquesne Law. He is married and has three children.

Democrats flipped a net of 12 seats, the minimum amount needed to take over the chamber, 102-101, after more than a decade in the minority. But that margin is now 101-99 for Republicans because state Rep. Tony DeLuca died of cancer a month before winning reelection, Rep. Summer Lee quit to become a member of Congress and Rep. Austin Davis resigned ahead of becoming lieutenant governor.

Nearly a quarter of the House are newly elected members, turnover driven by retirements and incumbent defeats caused in part by redistricting that occurred after the 2000 census.

The speaker during the 2021-22 session, Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, has said he no longer wants the job. As the House GOP’s designated floor leader, Cutler filed a still-pending lawsuit designed to delay the special elections to fill the Lee and Davis seats until May.

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McClinton has moved to schedule those elections for Feb. 7, when voters will pick a successor to DeLuca.

In the Senate, Republican Kim Ward, of Westmoreland County, was elected to serve as the chamber’s presiding officer, the president pro tempore. She is the first woman to hold the job and was picked for it by her fellow Republicans, who hold a 28-22 majority in the Senate.

Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, is succeeding Ward as majority leader. The Senate’s former president pro tempore, Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, did not seek reelection to run in the gubernatorial primary, but he lost.

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