Pa. House approves bipartisan rule tweaks as Senate rages

First year Democratic Reps. Regina Young, Rick Krajewski, and Amen Brown, all of Philadelphia, are sworn into the Pennsylvania House on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

The duality of politics was on display depending on which chamber of the Pennsylvania General Assembly you watched Tuesday.

Tune into the Senate, where the 50-member body exploded in partisan fury as the Republican majority refused to recognize a Democrat’s slim 69-vote win in western Pennsylvania.

But in the 203-member House, officials calmly took their oaths of office while agreeing to a set of small bipartisan rule changes, including the promise of future remote debates for lawmakers who avoid the trip to Harrisburg amid the pandemic.

The two months prior to Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony had been filed with empty attempts from some Republicans, citing non-existent voter fraud, to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.

House Republican leaders, who at first distanced themselves from the efforts, eventually signed onto a letter asking Congress to object to the state’s results. Such a challenge will take place Wednesday.

But even after the electoral acrimony, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said that the House’s placid demeanor and rules negotiations were proof of its ability to get things done.

“Our deliberations and differences of opinion ultimately makes a better product,” Benninghoff said. “Those sometimes watching from the outside think we’re just wrangling and with each other and arguing, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

The rules will streamline the process for the chamber to issue subpoenas — though authorization still requires an up-or-down floor vote. They also ban most non-binding resolutions.

Such resolutions may ask for Pennsylvania native baseball players to be inducted to the Hall of Fame, advocate for Congress to take actions that the General Assembly could do itself, or honor food items.

Sometimes, the resolutions may even name a day as an awareness day for a disease or medical condition, and be approved after the day has passed, noted Fair Districts PA Executive Director Carol Kuniholm, a good government advocate.

“The resolutions were out of control, but we will not be celebrating the fact that they dialed that back,” Kuniholm told the Capital-Star.

The group has called for more expansive rules reforms in the past, including measures to make it easier for popular bills to make it to the floor for a vote.

Democrats had pursued a rule change to force floor votes on legislation supported by more than half of lawmakers, regardless of party. Negotiations on the terms, continued up until the last minute, but no such measures made it into the final rules.

They were then passed with support from both parties, though some Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said they did not go far enough. 

Despite that slight disagreement, the lower chamber also unanimously backed Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

Cutler was challenged by McCinton for the gavel, but after a party-line vote, the Democrats ceremonially vacated their opposition for the chamber’s record.

McClinton also offered an opening prayer, in honor of Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, who died over the weekend from a brain aneurysm. 

Reese, a popular Republican lawmaker known among colleagues for his calm demeanor, was seen by some as a potential future floor leader or even speaker. 

“Let us be leaders,” McClinton said in her prayer. “Give us what we need to dig down on the inside, to be courageous.”

The virus, as Cutler noted, still hung over the ceremony. The 203-members were sworn in batches, freshman lawmakers first. All of the new lawmakers wore masks. At least a dozen of their older colleagues subsequently did not.

One Democratic lawmaker even announced Tuesday she was not participating because she tested positive for COVID-19.

The chamber’s rules were modified to mandate that by March 15, House members who do not travel to Harrisburg amid the pandemic could participate in committee and floor debates via video call. 

Both House and Senate have allowed remote voting since the early days of the pandemic in March. But only the smaller Senate has allowed remote participation in debates.