Electing a new Pa. House speaker expected to lead toward leadership shake-up in GOP caucus

At least two people from central Pennsylvania could move into top leadership positions.

  • By Jan Murphy/PennLive

(Harrisburg) — A shake-up in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is expected to take shape Monday within the Republican Caucus.

By the end of the day, at least two people from central Pennsylvania could move into top leadership positions.

All of this is triggered by last Monday’s resignation of Mike Turzai, who vacated his House seat and the Speaker’s chair to take a position as general counsel at Peoples, a Pittburgh-based gas utility.

That leaves the speaker’s seat in the GOP-controlled chamber up for grabs. The candidate most likely to ascend into that most powerful position in the House is Majority Leader Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County.

Ed Mahon / PA Post

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) speaks on the House floor on April 14, 2020. The remarks were live streamed.

Several House Republicans said they hate to see Cutler move up to presiding over the chamber’s rostrum because he has been an exceptional majority leader for the past year and a half during trying times in their view. But then they say they aren’t about to hold him back from advancing to speaker.

So on Monday, if all goes as expected in the full chamber’s election of Cutler as speaker, that will send Republicans behind closed doors to conduct potentially a series of elections to fill caucus leadership posts. That will start with the election of a new House majority leader to succeed Cutler.

This is a coveted position of power. It entails managing floor debates, advocating for the caucus, and striving to unify the caucus when divisive issues arise. The leader holds one of a half-dozen or so seats where the legislative branch’s power core is centered and plays a key role in negotiations over most major policy and budget issues with the Senate and Gov. Tom Wolf.

Jockeying for that spot are House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff of Centre County and House Republican Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor of York County.

As of Friday, the majority of the nearly two dozen GOP members and political insiders surveyed said the race between those two was too close to call, which led a couple to say they are not ruling out a dark horse emerging.

Rep. Stan Saylor

PA State House Appropriations Committee

Republican state representative Stan Saylor of York County, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Official photo

‘They are both capable’

What makes the decision so difficult is both Benninghoff and Saylor are generally well-regarded by their colleagues and worked their way up through the ranks. Both have logged more than two decades of service in the House. Benninghoff has served for 24 years; Saylor has been in the House for 28 years.

Each has built up a base of support within the caucus and shown an ability to work across the aisle. Both are said to be good fundraisers, which is an important attribute for a caucus leader. And both have lost an election for a leadership post and proven themselves capable of putting that behind them to keep the caucus unified.

Saylor, as House appropriations committee chairman, has a gauge on the state’s current finances, and it is helpful as leader to have a firm grasp on the fiscal impact of policies being pursued. Benninghoff, as whip, has a current read on what issues are important to which members and how members are likely to vote, which can help drive an agenda forward.

Some who said they were leaning toward Benninghoff also give him personality points as someone who is engaging and has an open door policy. However, a few mentioned they have been put off by some of his past votes, most recently his support for a policy requiring members to wear masks on the House floor as a bipartisan COVID-19 mitigation effort.

Others say Saylor, as one of the chamber’s more senior members, has been working for this moment by having served in various leadership roles and is deserving to become leader. Some, however, suggest he loses points for failing to fully embrace ideas from the so-called Common Sense Caucus – a group of fiscal conservatives who, besides limiting spending generally, felt the state had too much money stocked away in dozens of special funds that should be tapped to balance the budget.

While having a leadership election mid-term is a disruption and potentially divisive for a caucus, House GOP lawmakers and observers interviewed expressed confidence in either Saylor or Benninghoff’s ability to restore unity and effectively lead the caucus through the remaining five months of this legislative session.

“I think they are both capable and I think both would do a good job,” said Rep. Frank Farry, R-Bucks County. “This isn’t one of those elections where you’re turned off by one candidate and that makes the other one more appealing.”

Franklin & Marshall College political scientist G. Terry Madonna, a longtime Capitol observer, said he also doesn’t see this election as causing a lasting major rift within the caucus.

“Whatever happens, there’ll be unity,” he said. “The loser will end up supporting the winner and they’re going to move on.”

Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford County, agreed with that sentiment. “I think as a caucus we’ll continue to be strong either way,” he said “I would be proud to serve in this caucus under whatever leadership team emerges.

Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai announces at a news conference he will not run for another term as a Pennsylvania representative, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, in McCandless.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mike Turzai announces at a news conference he will not run for another term as a Pennsylvania representative, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, in McCandless.

Difficult to predict

Topper and others noted this leadership election is different from the biennial ones that occur after the November general election in even-numbered years, when House members stand for election.

The November caucus leadership elections usually happen during a lull in action and become the full focus of the caucus. This one is happening at a time the state is in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing high unemployment, facing a huge deficit, and having completed work on only a partial year state budget.

Further, Topper said in November caucus elections, candidates come to their colleagues talking about their vision of the public policies they want to pursue in the next two-year session, instead of how they are going to continue to operate the current vision in the remainder of the current session.

Several people also said another difference coming into play with Monday’s election is if a candidate holding a leadership post loses their bid to move up the leadership ladder, they return to their current role. In November leadership elections, that isn’t the case.

Beyond that, the November election usually has leadership candidates aligning themselves with others to ensure a geographic balance, so all or most regions of the state have a seat at the leadership table.

The geographic balance is a reason why some suggested Saylor will gain votes for leader. If he moves up to that position, that creates an opening for the coveted appropriations committee chairmanship potentially for a lawmaker from the southwest, a region that lost a seat at the leadership table with the departure of Turzai, from Allegheny County.

The lawmaker, some say, best suited for that reason to succeed Saylor, should he be elected as leader, is Rep. George Dunbar of Westmoreland County, who currently serves as the Republicans’ appropriations committee vice-chairman.

Putting geographic considerations aside, he isn’t the only one expressing interest in the appropriations chairmanship. Among others, there is Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, who chairs the House Government Oversight Committee formed last year to provide legislative oversight on how tax dollars are spent and how state agencies operate.

The various scenarios that have members in the House Republican Caucus playing musical chairs can be mind-numbing.

If Benninghoff would be elected leader, Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion County, policy committee chairwoman, is among those who is eyeing the whip’s post. If Oberlander leaves her caucus post, Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland County, caucus secretary, is among those who has expressed interest in being considered to fill her post. Then his leadership position would be up for grabs.

Bottom line from the myriad of people interviewed: No one really has a handle on what will happen on Monday, other than the strong likelihood of Cutler being elected speaker and a House GOP leadership shuffle occurring.

“The wind is changing every day,” Topper said. “Anybody who predicts how all this shakes out is basically making it up.”

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