The Pennsylvania Senate’s first session of the new year devolved into shouting Tuesday, as the Republicans who hold a majority in the chamber refused to seat a Democratic member who won reelection in November.
In a highly unusual move, GOP leaders forcefully seized control of the proceedings from Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, after Fetterman tried to insist the swearing-in of Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny) for a new term.
The Republican majority voted to remove Fetterman from presiding. Then Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) read out the names of the newly elected or re-elected senators, purposefully skipping Brewster, and Republicans again voted to confirm the move.
Fetterman, meanwhile, attempted to keep control over the chamber, and other Democrats joined in. Minority Whip Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) shouted out Brewster’s name as a clerk read off the other confirmed senators.
“We will not participate in this farce,” Williams told Republican members.
Brewster’s race has been the most intensely contested of all the commonwealth’s 2020 down-ballot races.
The Department of State has confirmed that the incumbent Democrat won another term by 67 votes over Republican Nicole Ziccarelli — a verdict only reached after the state confirmed that certain mail ballots on which voters had failed to properly mark dates could still be counted.
Ziccarelli has challenged the results in federal court, and her case is still pending with no deadline for action. It asks for 311 mail ballots that arrived at election offices on time, but were missing handwritten dates, to be thrown out.
The state Supreme Court already ruled that such ballots can be counted. Ziccarelli is, in effect, asking federal judges to overturn that ruling. At issue in the case is that the senate district includes parts of two counties. Allegheny chose to count such mail ballots in question. Westmoreland opted against it.
Republican leaders have said they intend to keep the seat empty while they “review” the election outcome. Corman called the situation “fairly unique, if not unprecedented.”
He and other Republicans did not say how long they intend to keep the seat empty, or what would end their review.
Democrats say they’re outraged at what they view as a bald-faced attempt to overrule voters in the 45th Legislative District.
“Any delay is inappropriate, simply because Senator Brewster is the winner of this race, but further because the residents of the 45th will have no voice in the Senate,” Brittany Crampsie, a spokeswoman for Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said. “As the body votes on critical issues of election reform, COVID relief, and judicial gerrymandering — they will have no vote, no voice, no say.”
Brewster, who had been in the chamber, left before other senators, including incoming Democrat Amanda Cappelletti, were sworn in.
I just took my oath of office- but @SenatorBrewster should have been up there with me. It’s endlessly frustrating that the @PASenateGOP has chosen this path- obstructing democracy, threatening integrity, and denying the people of the 45th District their duly elected Senator. pic.twitter.com/w5sC8ijABC
— Senator Amanda Cappelletti (@SenCappelletti) January 5, 2021
The proceedings continued with the election of Corman as Senate President Pro Tempore. Democrats, citing his handling of the Brewster decision, voted against him.
Crampsie said she had no idea how Republicans could justify seizing control of the chamber from Fetterman.
“I cannot defend or explain their hostile takeover,” she said.
This is not, however, the first time Republican leaders have clashed with Fetterman or removed him from presiding.
In 2019, the Senate devolved into a similar chaotic shouting match when Republicans moved to scuttle a small cash assistance program for poor Pennsylvanians without hearing Democratic amendments.
In that case, GOP leaders forced Fetterman from his rostrum when he allowed a Democratic Senator to speak while Republicans attempted to call a vote.
Using a procedure they later described as “uncharted territory” and “a little out-there,” they referred to Section 576 of Mason’s Manual, the legislative guidebook that most states, including Pennsylvania, use as a procedural default if their own rulebook doesn’t address a particular circumstance.
It says that if a presiding officer, like the lieutenant governor, “attempts to thwart the purpose of his office, the power resides in the assembly to pass him by and proceed to action otherwise.”
Jenn Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, said the caucus’s rationale was the same in their latest blowup.
“The chaos on the floor once again occurred because LG Fetterman failed to follow the rules,” she said.
Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile, followed up the episode by backing Fetterman and echoing accusations that Republicans are “spread[ing] disinformation and us[ing] it to subvert the democratic process.”
“It is simply unethical and undemocratic to leave the district without a voice simply because the Republicans don’t like the outcome of the election,” he said. “Voters, not Harrisburg politicians, decided this election, and Sen. Brewster is the rightful winner.”