Swearing-in day in the state Capitol is typically a neatly scripted event when members-elect take the oath of office and celebrate the start of a new legislative session with their colleagues and families. But given the current partisan wrangling over which party rightfully lays claim to the state House majority, this year’s swearing-in day was anything but typical.
A highly anticipated and unusual day at the state Capitol came to an unexpected conclusion last week as state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a six-term Democrat from Berks County, was elected Speaker of the House.
The Speaker of the House is a critical position in Pennsylvania state government with key responsibilities including selecting committee chairs and managing floor debate.
This Speaker election had been the subject of speculation for nearly two months following the Nov. 8 election. While Democrats won a one-seat majority (102-101), they almost immediately became a functional minority party with two members elected to higher office and the unfortunate death of 40-year incumbent Rep. Tony DeLuca (D-Allegheny).
Following the November election, House Democrats voted state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia) to serve as caucus leader. She was widely considered the frontrunner to be elected Speaker, though her path to election was unclear with Republicans holding a 101-99 majority on swearing-in day when the Speaker is elected. On the Republican side, former Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster), also elected leader by his caucus, was considered the most likely GOP candidate.
After several procedural delays and lengthy caucus meetings, a vote occurred in the late afternoon between Reps. Rozzi, who was nominated by Republican state Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair), and Carl Metzgar (R-Somerset) – neither of whom had been considered candidates prior to swearing-in day. Ultimately, 16 Republicans, including their entire leadership team, joined all Democrats in voting for Rozzi. He was elected 115-85.
The drama continued following Rozzi’s election as Speaker when he announced he will lead the House as an Independent and not caucus with either party.
The next step for the state House is to pass rules governing how many members each party will sit on committees, which party’s members will chair committees, who can call a vote on bills, and what rights will be reserved for the minority party. For instance, under previous House rules, the majority party got 15 seats on each committee while the minority party got 10. However, discussions are reportedly underway to narrow that ratio.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate followed the expected script. State Senator Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) was elected President Pro Tempore. She becomes the first woman to hold this most senior position in the Senate. Additionally, Ward was sworn in as interim Lieutenant Governor, replacing John Fetterman who last week was sworn-in as Pennsylvania’s junior U.S. Senator. Ward will serve in that capacity until Lt. Gov-elect Austin Davis is sworn in on Jan. 17.