Harrisburg, Pa. — The new legislative session began Tuesday at noon, and despite joyous bouquets and wide-eyed family members, the statehouse was humming with nervous anticipation. For weeks, it was unclear which party could claim a majority in the state House of Representatives: Democrats won more seats in November, but due to one death and two resignations, Republicans had more members for now. .
The election of the Speaker, the first act of the new House, was going to test this hotly debated question.
After a long afternoon of suspense, and to the surprise of almost everyone in the House, the choice was made: a moderate Democrat from the Reading area, nominated by two Republicans, who was on almost no one’s radar and who in his first speech pledged to be “the first independent speaker of the Commonwealth”.
“I’m sure many of you didn’t see this coming today,” the new speaker, Representative Mark Rozzi, said on stage.
Harrisburg isn’t the only capital where the task of deciding who’s in charge early in the new year has proved fatal. Repeated unsuccessful attempts by Republicans in Washington, DC, to elect a speaker to the US House of Representatives, were played on television at the Pennsylvania Statehouse on Tuesday, before the session began in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Democratic state delegates in Ohio helped elect a Republican House speaker who is not as conservative as the candidate supported by a majority of Republicans in their supermajority.
The fights in Washington and Ohio were ideological, but the maneuvering in Pennsylvania was largely about strategy, given the bizarre circumstances leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Democrats outperformed expectations on Election Day in Pennsylvania, winning a US Senate seat, the governor’s office and, perhaps most surprisingly, control of the State House, where they had been out of power for more than a decade.
However, this was only a one-seat majority, and one of the winning candidates died weeks before the November election. Then, in early December, two Democrats who had been re-elected to the House and elected to higher offices at the same time resigned their House seats.
In the weeks that followed, the issue was whether “majority” meant the party elected by voters in the majority of districts, or the party that had the most members at the start of the session. Democrats argued for the former, Republicans the latter. The question was courted, even as Republicans and Democrats held swearing-in ceremonies last month for the House Majority Leader.
Democrats are favored to win the special election to fill the three vacant seats, but the first of those votes won’t take place until at least February 7. So when the session began on Tuesday, the question was arising as to which party would control the House. For now, while Republicans have a 101-99 advantage.
The significance was not just symbolic, even in a state where power was already divided, with a Republican-controlled state senate and a Democratic governor. Republicans were expected to vote on several constitutional amendments that would not require the signature of Gov. Josh Shapiro; One would require voters to show identification at the polls and the other would give the legislature the power to overrule rules imposed by the executive branch. Democrats were concerned that Republicans would also change the rules of the House if they briefly won control, making it difficult to elect a new speaker after the Democrats took back the majority.
Caucus and party leaders met all morning Tuesday to discuss strategy, talks that continued in smaller huddles on the House floor in the afternoon. A vote to adjourn without choosing a speaker was deadlocked at 100–100, with one Republican voting with the Democrats.
Then the clerk asked for nominations for the speaker. What came next was a series of surprises. First, Representative Jim Gregory, a Republican representing a district outside Altoona, stood up and named Mr. Rossi, a Democrat.
“As we gather in this chamber today, we must look to our razor-thin majority,” Mr. Gregory said, urging members to “keep people over politics.” Then another legislator, a Republican House whip, endorsed the nomination.
All eyes turned to the Democrats, and especially to the Democratic leader, Representative Joanna McClinton, who was expected to become the first black woman to serve as speaker of the Pennsylvania House. Ms. McClinton announced that she endorsed Mr. Rossi’s nomination.
With 16 Republicans, including party leaders, joining all Democrats, Mr. Rossi won the speakership, defeating a traditionally conservative Republican who only minutes earlier had been the presumptive Republican choice.
In fact no one in the House other than Mr. Gregory and Mr. Rossi had recognized Mr. Rossi as a candidate when the day began. Mr. Gregory later said that he had raised the idea with Republican leaders shortly before nominating him on the floor. Mr. Gregory had developed a good working relationship with Mr. Rossi, but he nominated him as a way to get ahead of an almost assured Democratic majority.
“Here in Pennsylvania, we play two different games: Some people play checkers, and some people play chess,” Mr. Gregory said after the vote. “And I think what you just saw is a Democrat member who was in the majority leaves the majority to be an independent.”
As Republicans saw it, Mr. Rossi’s move would mean the Democrats could not win a majority even after the special elections. Later in the halls of the Capitol, Republicans wondered how such an evenly divided House would operate: who would control the committees, for example, and how they would be divided.
But it all happened so quickly that there were more questions than answers on Wednesday. Mr. Rossi, who has been a trusted moderate Democrat during his tenure in the House, is known for his efforts on behalf of victims of childhood sexual abuse. After speaking openly about being raped as a child by a priest, Mr. Rossi co-sponsored, with Mr. Gregory, a constitutional amendment that would allow victims to sue their abusers long after criminal statutes had ended. allows.
If the House and Senate vote on it at the start of the new session, that amendment could be on the ballot as soon as this May. Mr. Gregory said that making sure the House moved quickly on the amendment was the main reason he and Mr. Rossi began discussing their plan for the Speakership.
While Mr Rossi emphasized in his opening remarks before the House that he aims to be an independent speaker, pledging not to caucus with any party, it is unclear what this will mean in practice.
In a private meeting with Democrats after Tuesday’s vote, Mr. Rossi assured them that he still considered himself a Democrat, Comments first reported by SpotlightPAcorroborated by a state news outlet, and a Democratic House member.
In response, House Republican leader Representative Brian Cutler said in a statement that Republicans “continue to believe what he did publicly in his address and what he promised our leaders in private about being free Was, that hasn’t changed.”
On Tuesday evening, after several hours of peaceful meetings, Mr Rozzi briefly addressed a crowd of reporters in the Capitol Rotunda, hungry for any information that might make sense of the day’s events.
“I look forward to talking to you more about my plans as speaker, but this kind of heavy discussion needs to be considered,” said the new House speaker from the fifth-largest state. “And as this was unexpected, I will be making no further comments tonight. Thank you.”
Many questions cannot be answered until the House resumes at the time fixed by the Speaker. As of Wednesday afternoon, no date had been announced.
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