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Pa. House control will likely be decided by special elections this week

The Pennsylvania state House has been unable to function for a month. Three special elections this week could end the standoff, though big questions remain.

  • Katie Meyer/Spotlight PA
A man votes in a 2020 special election for Pa. House in Bucks County. This week, there will be three special elections for state House seats, this time in Allegheny County.

 Tyger Williams

A man votes in a 2020 special election for Pa. House in Bucks County. This week, there will be three special elections for state House seats, this time in Allegheny County.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

In the coming days, three special elections will likely decide which political party controls the Pennsylvania House, breaking a stalemate that has brought operations in the chamber to a complete halt.

The special elections for contested state House seats will be held Tuesday. All three are in Allegheny County districts dominated by registered Democratic voters, and the party is expected to win them.

If that happens, Democrats will hold the state House majority for the first time in more than a decade.

Along with delivering a likely Democratic majority, the elections are expected to end an unusual monthlong impasse in which action in the state House has been procedurally impossible.

The period began when a backbench Democrat became speaker in a GOP-engineered deal that quickly devolved into infighting between both major parties and left the chamber unable to agree on the operating rules that allow it to function.

Democratic candidates won the 32nd, 34th, and 35th state House districts in November, but the seats quickly became vacant. One of the winners died too close to Election Day to be removed from the ballot, and two others resigned after winning higher office.

Should the party win those districts again on Tuesday, the lower chamber will have 102 Democrats and 101 Republicans — a bare Democratic majority.

Democrats have yet to hash out who will serve as speaker of the state House under their likely majority, and what the closely divided chamber will manage to accomplish.

Will Mark Rozzi stay speaker?

The current speaker is state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks). He won the role in a Republican-engineered deal and was not his caucus’ first choice.

The speaker’s powers include moderating floor debate, calling up bills for votes, and naming the chamber’s committee chairs. While they technically serve as an officer for the chamber as a whole, they tend to use their considerable authority to benefit their party.

Since 2020, the Democrats’ likeliest candidate for speaker has been state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia). Despite unified Democratic support, the party’s three vacancies and inability to win Republican support kept McClinton from having the necessary votes to become speaker at the start of this legislative session.

That could change if Democrats win all three elections on Tuesday. But it’s far from certain that McClinton will end up holding the gavel.

There are two ways a speaker swap could happen. Rozzi could resign, or a majority of the state House could vote to recall him and install someone new. In either case, McClinton would need her entire 102-member caucus — including Rozzi — to vote for her. If any members opposed her, she would need GOP support to take the position.

Rozzi has indicated he does not want to step down, telling the AP, “I know how to count votes.”

He did not respond to a request for comment from Spotlight PA on whether he would vote for McClinton as speaker if he is recalled.

In a statement to Spotlight PA, McClinton said she would be “honored” to serve as Speaker, and added that she trusts her colleagues “will make the best decision to move Pennsylvania forward.”

She recently told The Inquirer that while she “would love to be the first woman to be speaker of the House,” she currently has no clear idea whether it will happen. “The answer is, I don’t know,” she said.

Some rank-and-file Democrats, including state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia), have publicly backed a speaker swap.

“When the House has its full complement of members Leader Joanna McClinton will become Speaker Joanna McClinton,” he tweeted last month.

Republican leaders have soured on Rozzi after arranging his installation as speaker. Amid an ongoing argument over control of a particular office suite, GOP Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) called for Rozzi to “step aside,” citing “a long list of trust-breaking.”

That “trust-breaking” began soon after the start of the session. The deal that gave Rozzi the gavel coalesced when Republicans, unable to keep their functional majority unified around a single candidate, looked for a Democrat willing to compromise.

GOP leaders pitched several Democratic members the same offer, sources told Spotlight PA: The Democrat would accept a nomination for speaker and receive GOP votes in exchange for becoming an independent and agreeing not to caucus with either party.

Rozzi accepted the nomination. A GOP ally of Rozzi told Spotlight PA the Democrat agreed to the deal because he worried that a deadlock over choosing a speaker could jeopardize his top legislative priority: a constitutional amendment that would give child sex abuse victims, like Rozzi himself, more options to sue their abusers.

Republican leaders supported Rozzi’s bid, and Democrats got behind him at McClinton’s direction. He won the internal vote easily.

But much to Republicans’ dismay, Rozzi did not renounce his Democratic party registration. GOP members began calling for his ouster soon after.

What can this legislature do?

The chamber’s inability to agree on basic operating rules has prevented legislation from being passed.

But both parties have telegraphed their priorities.

Democrats have said they want to raise the minimum wage, increase public school funding, and pass the sexual abuse amendment.

The measure would create a two-year window in which suits could be filed on old abuse cases, even if the statute of limitations has expired.

Republicans, meanwhile, have focused on circumventing the Democratic governor with constitutional amendments — chiefly, ones that would implement universal voter ID requirements at the polls, and make it easier for the state House and Senate to override the governor’s regulatory rules.

Both parties have noted that the chamber’s razor-thin partisan margins could make bipartisan deals necessary — and if such brokering flames out or a caucus cannot hold the line, a deadlock will follow.

“Everyone just needs to look at what’s good for the institution,” said state Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford). “I’m hopeful we’ll be able to move forward and have some success in the chamber.”

The state Senate, meanwhile, is still controlled by Republicans who have shown their priorities align with those of their state House counterparts.

In their first act of the session, Republican senators — with support from one Democrat — passed a package of constitutional amendments that wrapped voter ID and regulatory measures in with the child abuse amendment.

The Republicans’ decision to roll together these amendments, coupled with the state House’s inability to agree on operating rules, kept the abuse measure from meeting a deadline that would have put it on the ballot for a referendum during the May primary.

The survivors who have championed the amendment for years will have to wait until at least November to vote for it.

Who will vote Tuesday?

Up for a vote on Feb. 7 are seats in three Allegheny County districts: the 32nd, which covers suburbs northeast of Pittsburgh; the 34th, which covers parts of Pittsburgh as well as North Braddock, Wilkinsburg, and Wilkins Township; and the 35th, which covers McKeesport, several other small municipalities, and part of West Mifflin.

Each district has a voting population that is more than 60% Democratic, but Republicans have still mounted challenges in all three.

In the 32nd, Democrat Joe McAndrew is running against Republican Clayton Walker to claim the seat that late Democrat Tony DeLuca held for nearly four decades. The 34th, which Democrat Summer Lee held before her election to Congress, has Republican Robert Pagane facing Democrat Abigail Salisbury. And Democrat Matthew Gergely competes against Republican Don Nevills in the 35th, which was represented by Democrat Austin Davis until his election to lieutenant governor.

Unlike primary elections, people of any party — including those affiliated with no party at all — can vote in these special elections. The deadline to register to vote, however, has passed, so unregistered voters will not be able to participate.

Voters can double check their registrations on the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website, and can also use the site to check whether they live in one of the three districts hosting elections.

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA contributed reporting.

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