HARRISBURG — The impeachment of Philadelphia’s district attorney dominated the last scheduled voting day of the Pennsylvania House.

Lawmakers’ final vote before recessing, one cast in the shadow of such a momentous move, was just as reflective of the division between the lower chamber’s ruling parties ahead of the next legislative session.

The final hour of the session day on Nov. 16 saw Democrats and Republicans at odds over two proposed rules changes specific to the House.

One sought to end the use of taxpayer-funded vehicles for members. The other looked to end the use of proxy voting and remote participation in floor sessions and committee meetings.

All Republicans present and every Democrat but one voted for the change in vehicle use and reimbursement, 191-1. Nine members from either side were on leave and one seat is vacant due to the October death of Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Allegheny.

That type of agreement wasn’t in play for the second proposal. Party-line voting carried it through by a count of 109-83.

Votes on each came after an already lengthy and charged debate that ended with Larry Krasner’s impeachment on a similar vote tally.

Rules are adopted at the start of every two-year House session and expire at the session’s end. Since House members run for election every other year, this format allows input from new members. The current session expires Wednesday, Nov. 30.

Any late changes could theoretically be reversed in the following session but the following session is lining up like none other.

Democrats won the majority in the midterms. But, they’ll have three vacancies: Deluca, Rep. Austin Davis, who won the lieutenant governor’s election, and Rep. Summer Lee, elected to U.S. Congress.

In the best-case scenario for House Democrats, timing and circumstance could see them deadlocked with Republicans at 101-101 on Jan. 3.

More likely, the split will favor Republicans that day, 101-100, with Lee off to Congress to be sworn in at the very same hour and Davis eligible to continue in the House until he becomes lieutenant governor on Jan. 17.

That leaves Republicans in a majority position not only to elect the next House Speaker, whose role includes setting the dates for special elections needed to fill the three vacancies, but also for votes to adopt new rules and for other initiatives like a pending package of five constitutional amendments.

The amendment proposals impact abortion rights, voter identification, regulatory oversight, election audits and make the office of lieutenant governor an appointed position. If adopted in January — the package passed through the House and Senate last summer and can’t be vetoed by the governor — voters can expect their say in the May primary election.

Republicans should fall into the minority position at some point in 2023, and the new rules could be amended with Democrats in the majority, but perhaps not until after the GOP achieving legislative victories that would be unlikely if all seats were filled.

The loss of proxy voting and remote participation could affect the voting majority at any point regardless of which party has majority control since the margin is so small.

Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre/Mifflin, who didn’t seek re-election as his party’s floor leader next year, offered the two proposals in a single resolution. The resolution was reportedly proposed about an hour before being brought to the floor for voting.

After debate and a motion by Democrat Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, they were split for separate votes with some Republican resistance.

Benninghoff made the case that the rule was always meant to be temporary and that as people are encouraged to return to work with the COVID-19 pandemic persisting through the third year, the same should apply to House members.

“This chamber has lasted and functioned for hundreds of years before there was such a thing called remote voting. It wasn’t designed for when somebody runs for two offices,” Benninghoff said, his remarks aimed at Lee and Davis. “It was designed for when somebody was ill.”

Democrats saw the proposal as something else — a measure to manipulate control and create a straw man argument by marrying the voting rule with that of the rule on vehicles.

McClinton and fellow Democratic Rep. Matt Bradford, party chair of the Appropriations Committee, argued that the elimination of remote participation and proxy voting forces members to risk their own health and that of others in order to appear in person for voting even when they’re feeling ill.

“We are undermining our members’ ability to represent their constituents should we not have proxy voting, should we not have the ability to vote remotely, particularly as we are still in a worldwide pandemic,” McClinton said.

Her floor remarks came after she learned that at least two House members had tested positive for COVID-19, the results shared with members as the debate was carried out.

Bradford framed the push as strategic and petty.

“There’s no other reason to do this,” Bradford said. “It is so cynical, it is so obvious, it is so clear that those who would never give power are struggling mightily with the new reality.”

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CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

Eric Scicchitano is the CNHI Pennsylvania state reporter. He is a former CNHI Reporter of the Year and previously worked at The (Sunbury) Daily Item before until he took over the Harrisburg beat in January 2022. Email him at erics@cnhinews.com.

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