Spotlight PA
Pennsylvania lawmakers take the oath of office in the House chamber in the Capitol building in Harrisburg in 2021. They did again on Tuesday. Photo by Jose F. Moreno / Philadelphia Inquirer.

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By Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania House Democrats and a handful of Republicans joined together Tuesday to pick the chamber’s next speaker — but not the one anyone expected.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi of Berks County, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who has pushed for the creation of a civil window to bring lawsuits against abusers, was named as the next presiding officer with 115 votes.

In remarks made after his selection, Rozzi announced he would no longer caucus with the Democrats and would become independent.

The position of speaker is a critically important one, with the power to moderate floor debate, call up bills for votes, and name the chamber’s committee chairs.

Until Tuesday, and for much of that day, Democrats had publicly maintained that Rep. Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), who had served as caucus leader, was their only pick for the role. She would have been the first woman to hold the gavel.

After a dozen years with the state House under firm Republican control, November’s midterm elections brought Democrats an unexpected 102 to 101 majority in the 203-member chamber.

That’s thanks to several vacancies in seats Democrats won and a disagreement over who has the authority to schedule special elections to fill those openings.

Democrats won more seats in November, but Republicans temporarily have 101 members to Democrats’ 99 — a functional majority.

There’s also broad agreement that special elections will have to be held in the coming months to fill these vacancies. One of those elections will happen on Feb. 7 to replace state Rep. Tony DeLuca, who died before winning reelection to Allegheny County’s 32nd District. The district is heavily Democratic, and the party is favored to keep the seat.

Legislative leaders, however, remain divided on when to schedule elections to fill two other Democratic vacancies in Allegheny County. They were left after members Austin Davis and Summer Lee won reelection, then resigned because they’d also been elected to other positions — lieutenant governor and member of Congress, respectively.

Those seats are also heavily favored to stay in Democratic hands.

Democrats want to fill those two seats on Feb. 7, as well. Republicans want to wait until the May primary, which would keep the seats empty as long as legally possible. The state’s appellate courts are expected to decide who has the authority to make that decision.

Complicating the math even further, Republican state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver is running to fill an open seat in the state Senate and will resign from the state House if she wins — a likely scenario. That special election is on Jan. 31, and her resignation will follow as soon as the results are certified. After that, the speaker — whoever that is — will set a special election date.

In practice, this all means Republicans will almost certainly keep a one or two-vote functional advantage until at least Feb. 7. GOP members have told Spotlight PA they hope to use this majority to advance a few wide-reaching constitutional amendments, including one that would require all voters to present ID at the polls.

If Democrats get their choice of special election dates for all three of their vacancies and successfully keep the seats under their control, they’ll likely retake the majority after Feb. 7.

If Republicans get their way, the House could end up tied 100 to 100 after February’s special election, with the chamber deadlocked for at least a few months.

The speaker of the state House controls the chamber, with the power to moderate floor debate, decide which bills get votes, pick members to chair committees, and schedule special elections.

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