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Pa. House vacancies leave 2023 power, leadership in question

Control of the State House of Representatives is still up for grabs almost a month after election day, setting up an unprecedented start to 2023 in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — There's unfinished business to deal with in Harrisburg. 

While Democrats won enough seats in November to control the House, those seats are now empty and Republicans are calling Democrat's moves to take power into question.

Democrats took control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years in November, claiming a majority, 102 seats, while Republicans won 101. 

Three of those seats are now open, as Democratic Representatives Summer Lee and Austin Davis take office in the U.S. House and Lieutenant Governor's office. Representative Tony Deluca died in October, after his name was already printed on the ballot, and won re-election. 

It means the state must hold special elections to fill those posts on Feb. 7, but until then, the Republicans hold a 101 to 99 majority.

"I'm not sure there's a right answer to this," said Berwood Yost, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Center for Opinion Research.

Yost says this sets up an unprecedented scenario. Representatives are sworn in next month and must vote for a speaker of the house before the special elections are set to take place.

"In theory, Democrats have the number of seats they need to control the House, in practical terms, when they go to swear in the members on Jan. 3, they won't," he said.

Democrats are already making moves to take power, swearing in Representative Joanna McClinton as House Majority Leader on Wednesday, acting as speaker until the official election. She's the first woman to hold the role. 

The move received pushback from outgoing Republican House Leader Representative Bryan Cutler and others, who claimed the swearing-in was secretive and premature, noting the three seats are still open.

"There's nothing nefarious or wrong with a party trying to organize itself and get ready for what's to come," Yost said. "The real question is: what's going to happen on Jan. 3? We'll probably all be surprised at the end of the day how it works out."

Experts expect the three seats to go to the Democrats, securing the majority, but if Republicans elect a House Speaker from their own party before they lose the majority, Yost says the state would be moving into uncharted territory.

"The courts are often reluctant to get involved in the way that the house organizes itself," he said. "I think the impetus for this is going to come down to House leaders figuring out a way to proceed."

Some more signs of a frustrating power struggle emerged Wednesday.

Representative Cutler submitted a writ of elections, hoping to set Feb. 7 as the date for the special elections, but the acting secretary of the commonwealth rejected it, stating the letter arrived before the end of the legislative term. 

However, McClinton issued a writ of elections on Wednesday, acting as speaker, requesting the elections be held on the same date, resulting in a fiery response from Cutler.

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