The Pa. Legislature returns: Three storylines to follow today | Tuesday Morning Coffee

From the fight over state House speaker to new leadership in the Senate. There’s plenty to keep track of as the 2023-24 session kicks off

January 3, 2023 7:18 am
Pennsylvania Capitol Building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Welcome to the first Tuesday of 2023. At high noon today, incoming members of the state House and Senate will take the oath of office, officially kicking off the new, two-year legislative session.

And while last November’s general election is squarely in the rearview mirror, that doesn’t mean the coming weeks and months are going to lack for drama or intrigue. As we’re so often told, there’s really no such thing as an ‘off year’ in politics anymore, and 2023 promises to be no exception.

So, with that in mind, here are some storylines we’ll be following today.

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

1. There’s no fighting in here, this is the war room.

Yes, there are two chambers of the Pennsylvania Legislature, but it’s a sure bet that all eyes will be on the 203-member state House of Representatives, where an ongoing row over which party has control of the lower chamber boiled over late last year, and remains tempestuous today.

As a refresher, Democrats retook control of the House for the first time in a decade last fall, winning a slender 102-101 majority, but then promptly lost it, thanks to vacancies created by the pre-Election Day death of a long-serving lawmaker and the post-election resignations of two more who were elected to higher office.

That means Republicans come into the day holding 101 seats to the Democrats’ 99 — at least until special elections are held to fill those vacant seats. The dates of those elections, one scheduled for next month, two more for primary day in May, are being hotly disputed.

Pointing to that numerical edge, Republicans, led by Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, argue that they’re in control — at least for the time being, giving them control over those special elections. Cutler served as House speaker during last year’s legislative session.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso).

Democrats, led by Rep. Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia, the first Black woman to serve as the caucus’ floor leader, and the Dems’ top choice for speaker, say they have the power to call them. The dispute is currently before the state’s Commonwealth Court.

Among the tasks facing lawmakers is the election of a new speaker — usually a pro forma event with the gavel going to the majority party.

But as our colleagues at City & State Pa. recently reported, GOP leaders blasted out an email to their members warning them against negotiating with Democrats to elect the chamber’s new presiding officer.

In the email, GOP leaders said that members of the House Democratic Caucus had reached out to GOP members about supporting a Democratic candidate, or a “transitional or consensus candidate,” for speaker, City & State reported.

The leaders said that Democrats reached out to GOP members claiming that Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro “would deliver on projects” in their districts if they supported the Democrats’ candidate.

Shapiro, some readers will recall, helped engineer the election of a compromise candidate in 2006, when the Democrats also held a razor-thin majority, handing the gavel to former Rep. Dennis M. O’Brien, R-Philadelphia.

“I really hope we can compromise and come up with some kind of balance to whoever the speaker is and whatever the rules become. Then we can move on and do the people’s work,” Rep. Tom Mehaffie, R-Dauphin, told PennLive last week. “There’s too many good people in the House of Representatives to allow this thing to become a circus. I like the circus … but not there.”

All this guarantees there will be no shortage of drama in this very short session week.

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

2. Meanwhile, in the state Senate:

If you’re having an ‘Oh, are you still here?’ moment when it comes to the 50-member upper chamber, you’re probably not alone. The Legislature’s self-styled deliberative body has been noticeably quiet amid the scrambling and jockeying for position on the other side of the Capitol.

But as is the case with the House, lawmakers will be taking the oath of office at 12 p.m. today. And the composition of the chamber, mainly among its Republican majority, is going to look very different.

For one, session will resume without two senior Republicans: Former Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, who chose not to seek re-election, and former Appropriations Committee Chairperson Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, who lost a primary challenge last spring.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland (Pa. Senate photo).

Sen. Kim Ward R-Westmoreland, is expected to win election as the Senate’s presiding officer. She is the first woman in state history to hold the job, which is second, behind the lieutenant governor, in the line of gubernatorial succession, as the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reports. New Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, officially begins his tour as the Senate GOP’s floor leader. That matters because Pittman’s office controls the voting calendar. Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, slides into Browne’s former perch on the powerful, purse strings-controlling Appropriations Committee.

For the Senate’s minority Democrats, Sens. Jay Costa, of Allegheny County, and Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, respectively remain in place as floor leader and as ranking Democratic member of the Appropriations CommitteeSen. Christine M. Tartaglione, of Philadelphia, is the chamber’s Democratic whip, also the first woman in state history to hold the influential post, according to PoliticsPA.

One more big change — and we do mean big — Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who won election to the U.S. Senate last November, is expected to resign his post. That means Ward will pull double-duty until Jan. 17, when Lt. Gov-elect Austin Davis takes the oath of office, PennLive reported.

Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro speaks to supporters in Montgomery on Tuesday, 11/8/22 (screen capture)

3. The Final Countdown.

As of this writing, just 14 days remain in Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s second, and final, term. As noted above, Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, currently the state’s elected attorney general, takes the reins on Jan. 17.

Austin Davis at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, PA on Sept. 20, 2022

There are a couple of historical notes here. Shapiro’s general election win over Republican Doug Mastriano last November marks the first time since 1958 that voters have elected back-to-back Democratic governors.

As noted above, Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, will also take the oath of office in two weeks’ time, making him the first Black man to serve as the state’s second-ranking executive branch official.

Davis, along with former Rep. Summer Lee, also of Allegheny County, who won election to the new

12th Congressional District, were the two Democratic lawmakers who resigned their posts late last year, contributing to the current power struggle in the House.

House GOP Leader Bryan Cutler scheduled special elections for Davis’ and Lee’s old House seats for primary day. The

special election for the third empty seat, held by the late Rep. Anthony DeLuca, of Allegheny County, who died last fall, but still won re-election thanks to a quirk of state election law, will be held next month.

Another historical note: Lee is the first Black woman in state history to be elected to Congress from Pennsylvania.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.