With no majority in the Pa. House, Democrats and Republicans are fighting over who calls the shots

Republican Leader Bryan Cutler accused Democrats of ‘attempting a paperwork insurrection … as part of a selfish power grab for a majority that literally does not exist’

By: - December 1, 2022 4:34 pm

Pa. House Majority Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, meets the press after Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

(This story was updated at 10:56 a.m., Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.)

Foreshadowing contentious times to come, Democrats and Republicans in the evenly-divided state House sparred Thursday over who has the power to call a special election for a vacant seat in western Pennsylvania.

Caucus leaders took umbrage at each others’ positions on the unusual circumstances stemming from the Republicans’ loss of 13 seats in the general election, and the death of an incumbent Democrat putting the party one vote short of a majority.

Democrats won 102 House seats in the general election, but Rep. Anthony DeLuca’s, D-Allegheny, death in October, means Democrats have only 101 votes, the same number as Republicans.

After former House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, on Wednesday called for a Feb. 7 special election for the DeLuca’s seat, Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, challenged his authority to do so. 

McClinton said that while Democrats agree that calling a special election as soon as possible makes sense, it was her prerogative to do it as majority leader and “acting speaker.” 

On Thursday, Cutler accused Democrats of “attempting a paperwork insurrection … as part of a selfish power grab for a majority that literally does not exist” by making up fake titles and laying claims to power they do not have.

“House Democrats and their leadership team cannot have their cake and eat it too: They either believe in transparency or they don’t. A vacancy exists in the House resulting in an equal, majority-less split of 101-101, or it doesn’t. They either respect peaceful transitions of power and institutional norms, or they don’t,” Cutler said in a statement.

That came hours after McClinton, D-Philadelphia asserted her party’s majority after winning a nominal 1-seat advantage in the general election.

“Despite the extraordinary, last-ditch attempts by the Republican caucus to roll back the will of the voters, today I am the House majority leader, and while the constitution does not include the title of ‘acting speaker,’ it does require a presiding officer,” McClinton said in prepared remarks.

In a gaggle with reporters at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon, Cutler explained that his term as speaker ended when the session ended at midnight Wednesday. And although the new session began Thursday, there is no speaker until the chamber convenes to elect a new speaker, Cutler said.

“There is no speaker at this time,” Cutler said.

And because the House will still be evenly split when it convenes Jan. 3, electing a leader will be the subject of dealmaking before then. Cutler said the closest comparison to the situation was in 1979 when Democrats won a 102-seat majority but a lawmaker died before taking office leaving the House evenly divided. Then a recount in another district flipped the seat, giving Republicans a one-seat majority. 

“It was managed then and it can be managed now, but it will take a return phone call from the Democratic leader,” Cutler said. 

A spokesperson for McClinton responded to Cutler’s statement, saying that McClinton has returned Cutler’s calls and the two caucus leaders have a meeting scheduled Monday.

In her remarks Thursday, McClinton acknowledged that the Democrats’ majority is narrow. Although DeLuca’s former district is considered a safe one for Democrats, former Rep. Carrie Lewis DelRosso, who was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, has said she would consider running for the seat. Her home was drawn into the district in this year’s redistricting.

But even if a Democrat wins DeLuca’s former seat, there’s more uncertainty on the horizon.

Democratic Allegheny County Reps. Summer Lee and Austin Davis will each resign in January. Lee was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and Davis was elected lieutenant governor. That will give Republicans a 101-99 majority at least until special elections are held for those seats.

McClinton said Thursday she was confident that the Democrats’ majority would hold, but acknowledged that with a narrow majority they wouldn’t be able to “run roughshod over members’ rights or silence the opposing party.”

“If we can put aside exclusionary and divisive policies that have failed us and focus on collaboration, we can govern effectively,” McClinton said. “I am confident that there are policies and issues we agree on, and we should be starting to craft solutions and build consensus on those policies and issues.” 

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.