As control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives remains in dispute, House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler said Monday that he plans to schedule special elections for vacant House seats as a state court considers his request to invalidate a similar action taken last week by his Democratic counterpart.
Cutler was sworn in as the state House’s GOP leader on Monday and said the current 101-99 makeup of the House makes him the chamber’s majority leader until three vacant seats are filled in upcoming special elections.
Democrats won 102 seats in this year’s state legislative elections, giving them a one-seat majority that allowed them, in theory, to flip the chamber in their favor. However, the death and posthumous reelection of state Rep. Tony DeLuca, coupled with the resignations of state Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee, have put Democrats at a three-seat disadvantage leading into the next legislative session. The fluctuating composition of the state House has created conflict, leaving Democrats and Republicans jostling for control of the legislature’s lower chamber.
Last week, House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton was sworn in during a private ceremony and claimed that past precedent made her the chamber’s presiding officer. She proceeded to schedule three special elections for early next year to fill the vacant House seats.
That move was immediately contested by Cutler, who called McClinton’s actions an “illegitimate power grab” and a “paperwork insurrection.” He went on to file a lawsuit Friday night asking a state court to invalidate McClinton’s actions.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Cutler said the current makeup of the chamber gives him the power to schedule special elections – not McClinton.
“I was sworn in as the Republican leader – it is the math that makes me the majority leader at 101 to 99 in light of the resignations and the unfortunate and untimely death of our good friend Representative DeLuca,” said Cutler. “That is why the Democrats would currently be down three seats. So, it's the math that actually would make us the majority.”
Under the state constitution, the “presiding officer” of the House schedules special elections when vacancies occur. However, the House currently lacks a speaker, leaving questions about who can legally lead the chamber before lawmakers elect a new speaker in January.
Cutler filed a lawsuit late last week seeking to have the Commonwealth Court invalidate McClinton’s writs of election, which set dates for the three House special elections. In the legal filing, Cutler said without 102 living members making up the House Democratic Caucus, McClinton “has no basis to claim the title Majority Leader.”
“The question is actually very simple – it's who has the power to issue the writ? And it's not somebody who is not in a numerical majority. That's really the only question that will be before the court. It's a question of math,” Cutler said, referring to the lawsuit.
Nicole Reigelman, a spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus, said in a statement that Cutler’s suit is an attempt “to delay and deny nearly 200,000 Pennsylvanians their basic right to representation.”
“The state House needs to be restored to its full complement without needless delay and every Pennsylvanian must have representation as soon as possible, so the legislature can begin the work it was elected to do.”