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HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House is about to enter an extended post-holiday hibernation.
In a calendar released in December, state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) told her colleagues the body would not meet to vote on bills until March 18 to allow for a water leak above the chamber’s ceiling to be repaired.
Traditionally, state lawmakers break for Christmas and return to Harrisburg by mid-January to hold votes. That’s what the state Senate plans to do this year.
Between Jan. 1 and March 18, 2022, the state House and Senate each held nine voting session days.
“I am fully confident that we will have a productive and meaningful Spring 2024 session, even as we work through some of these scheduling obstacles,” McClinton said.
The nearly three-month recess will coincide with a Democratic vacancy in the closely divided chamber. There were five other such vacancies in 2023, and the Democratic-controlled chamber regularly adjourned when its one-vote majority vanished due to a resignation.
Only bills that have already passed the state House, then are approved by the state Senate without changes, can reach Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk during the extended break. This means the legislature will be temporarily unable to grapple with major issues such as a far-reaching court ruling on how the state funds public education or its outdated Election Code.
Speaking to Spotlight PA in December, state House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said “the leak is real” and was discovered last year during the transition from Republican to Democratic control of the chamber.
But while repairs are ongoing, Cutler argued that votes could be held outside of the state House’s ornate, nearly 120-year-old chamber.
He mentioned the state-owned Forum Auditorium across the street from the main Capitol building, which can fit more than 1,600 people and hosted state House Democrats’ leadership vote in fall 2020. He also noted that lawmakers held voting sessions at a church just down the block after the old Capitol building burned in 1897.
“There's a lot of other opportunities,” Cutler said.
In an email, McClinton spokesperson Nicole Reigelman downplayed the odds of meeting elsewhere, arguing that “the current House is more reliant on modern technology” for electronic voting, remote voting, and livestreaming.
She added that the chamber’s operating rules “very clearly define certain actions that must be carried out in the House chamber including the swearing in of members, the recording of the electronic roll call, and the signing of bills.”
State House lawmakers will meet in Harrisburg for at least two days before March 18. The chamber is constitutionally required to meet on the first Tuesday of the year, which will be a non-voting day in the chamber before repairs start.
Then, McClinton’s spring session calendar said that she planned to convene the chamber in the Capitol rotunda on Feb. 6 for the governor’s annual budget address, which is usually delivered before a joint session of the General Assembly.
In an email, Shapiro spokesperson Manuel Bonder didn’t comment on the location, noting only that the governor looks forward to addressing the legislature to outline his priorities “and rally leaders in both parties around the responsibility to get things done for all Pennsylvanians.”
As of Jan. 1, the lower chamber had scheduled 34 session days between Jan. 1 and the June 30 budget deadline; this total does not include the budget address or nonvoting days when leadership handles procedural matters. The state Senate had scheduled 29, including four before the state House’s planned return.
By mid-March, the state House is expected to again be at its full 203-member complement — likely led by a Democratic majority.
Former state Rep. John Galloway (D., Bucks), who won a local judgeship in November, stepped down on Dec. 14, the day after lawmakers finalized a deal to end the state’s budget impasse.
The special election to replace Galloway will occur on Feb. 13. Local Democrats named school board member Jim Prokopiak as their candidate in late December.
The suburban Philadelphia seat has historically been held by Democrats, though more voters in the district have increasingly picked Republican candidates in recent statewide elections.
Galloway isn’t the only lawmaker who won’t be returning come March. State Rep. Joe Kerwin (R., Dauphin), a member of the Army National Guard, announced in December that he will be deployed to East Africa.
While the Pennsylvania House’s permissive remote voting rules allow caucus leadership to vote for absent lawmakers, Department of Defense policy will prevent Kerwin from participating in the chamber’s day-to-day functions.
According to a federal directive, members of the National Guard on active duty for more than 270 days “may hold — but shall not exercise — the functions of a civil office,” such as voting on legislation.
Unlike Galloway, Kerwin is not resigning and his seat will not be vacant. Because of that, the bar needed to pass a bill will remain at least 102.
That means, barring more resignations, the Republican caucus will need at least two Democrats, rather than one, to pass legislation, amend the rules, or name a new speaker.
Kerwin is not the first lawmaker to deploy overseas while holding office. In 2019, state Rep. Zach Mako (R., Lehigh), a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who serves in the Pennsylvania National Guard, was sent to the Middle East for a year. He stayed on legislative leave throughout his tour.
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