Pa. House Republican leadership gets a shakeup as control of the chamber is in limbo
(This story was updated at 6:24 p.m., Tuesday, 11/22/2022, to include the results of state House leadership elections.)
State House Republican leadership saw a significant shake up this week as Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, bowed out ahead of an election and four caucus positions changed hands.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, will be the minority leader, at least temporarily. Republicans elected Rep. Tim O’Neil, R-Washington, as whip; Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, as the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee,; Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, as policy chair; and Rep. Sheryl Delozier, R-Cumberland, as caucus administrator.
Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, will remain caucus secretary, and Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmorland, will remain as caucus chairperson. Appropriations Committee Chairperson Stan Saylor, R-York, lost his seat in a primary challenge to Rep-elect Wendy Jo Fink, R-York.
The turnover followed the GOP’s poor performance in the Nov. 8 election, where Republicans lost 13 state House seats.
Democrats won a one-seat majority on Nov. 8, but one of the lawmakers re-elected, Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, died about a month before the election. That means the House will be evenly divided 101-101 when it convenes for the 2023-24 session.
Leadership of the lower chamber will be the subject of dealmaking behind the scenes, those familiar with the House’ inner workings say.
Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, who predicted her party would take control of the House, will have to wait a couple of months, at least, to lead it.
Shortly after the session begins, House Democrats will lose two more seats.
Allegheny County state Reps. Austin Davis, who was elected lieutenant governor, and Summer Lee, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, must resign from the state House.
Although McClinton and other Democrats have said they’re confident they’ll win those seats in safe Democratic districts in special elections early next year, Cutler said Tuesday that he doesn’t count his party out.
“I, for one, believe that we will fight for those seats,” Cutler said on Tuesday.
Because neither party is in the majority, the House clerk will serve as speaker on day one, Cutler said after announcing the results of the Republican leadership election.
“Our first order of business will be to elect the speaker and we will be there until one is elected,” Cutler said.
The circumstances are unlike any in Pennsylvania history, leaving uncertainty over which caucus will elect the speaker of the House and how long the most senior leader might serve. It has also fueled speculation about dealmaking to share control of the House floor and committees.
“I think this will be the most compelling and interesting December in the 340-year history of the General Assembly,” former Rep. Bill DeWeese, a Democrat who served as House speaker i from 1993 to 1994, told the Capital-Star.
In a statement, Benninghoff said his decision not to seek a leadership role was driven by a desire to spend more time with his family and focus on his constituents’ needs.
“This year I again listened to retirement speeches, many of which mentioned optimism and joy at the opportunity to spend more time with family,” Benninghoff said. I do not want to wait until I retire or regret it when I am dead that I was not able to do the same.”
“Over the last two-and-a-half years as majority leader, I have spent a tremendous amount of time on the road attending fundraisers, supporting members in their districts, and helping to raise the profile of the House Republican Caucus,” Benninghoff continued. “Stepping aside now opens the door for someone else to step up to a position of responsibility and inject new ideas into the caucus.
“Looking ahead, I plan on devoting my time to representing the people of Centre and Mifflin counties, helping to mentor newer members – including a large class of freshmen, and spending time with my children and grandchildren. I am excited for what the future holds,” Benninghoff said.
With Benninghoff bowing out, at least two of the top leadership positions in the house will turn over.
House Parliamentarian Clancy Myer told the Capital-Star that there have been circumstances in which one party held a slim majority only to lose it after the election.
In 1978, Democrats won a 102-seat majority, but a representative-elect died before taking office. Then a recount flipped the results of the election in another district, giving control to the Republicans who elected the speaker.
There is a precedent for the speaker of the House to be a member of the minority party. Democrats entered the 2007-08 session with a one-vote majority but some members of the caucus were unwilling to vote for DeWeese, who was then the majority leader.
DeWeese nominated Rep. Dennis O’Brien, R-Philadelphia, after then-Reps. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, and Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery, brokered a deal that allowed Democrats to control the House committees.
DeWeese said the arrangement worked in O’Brien’s favor, as he gained power to advance legislation related to children with disabilities, which was his passion, and a bigger paycheck.
A similar deal could be a solution to the impending impasse, although DeWeese said it’s unlikely that another minority speaker would serve for the entire session, as O’Brien did.
DeWeese said he expects Democrats to prevail in the special elections and regain their majority. The speaker of the house must order the elections no sooner than 60 days after the House convenes but no later than the spring primary election, which has not been set.
Delaying the special elections as long as possible would have advantages for Republicans, who are expected to bring a package of constitutional amendments including an abortion ban, up for a second vote to trigger a referendum next year.
“They’re coming back. It’ll be a matter of whether it’s March, April or May,” he said.