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Pennsylvania Republicans refuse to seat incoming Democratic senator

President Donald Trump supporters gather on the statehouse steps as the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are sworn in.
President Donald Trump supporters gather on the statehouse steps as the Pennsylvania House of Representatives are sworn in.Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A bitter dispute erupted on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday when majority Republicans blocked a Democratic incumbent from being sworn in because his GOP challenger has disputed the razor-thin election results.

Lawmakers were back in the Capitol for swearing-in day, facing a still-raging pandemic and a massive budget gap. Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers.

The Senate quickly dissolved into chaos over the status of Democratic Sen. Jim Brewster, of Allegheny County. The Republican challenge brought to the floor of the Legislature sharp words and harsh partisanship, an echo of the political and electoral tactics on display in recent months by President Donald Trump.

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Democrats in the Senate began protesting — in some cases, shouting — after the GOP refused to seat Brewster, whose election was certified by the state but is being contested by his Republican challenger, Nicole Ziccarelli.

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, accused Republicans of violating the state’s laws and constitution.

“There is nothing about this day that is appropriate, nothing, and we are not going to lay down and roll over” because of being outvoted, Williams said. “This is about Pennsylvania, it’s not Democrats or Republicans, it’s not about simply winning. This is about protecting our democracy.”

Republicans muscled through a motion to remove for the day Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, as the presiding officer, after Fetterman insisted that Brewster be sworn in with the other senators. They then voted through another motion to recognize the election in every Senate contest, except for Brewster’s.

The fight followed weeks of Trump challenging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania with baseless allegations of fraud and lawsuits that have repeatedly lost in the courts.

Amid Trump's full-court press in hopes that GOP members of Congress will overturn Biden’s election, eight of Pennsylvania’s nine Republican members of the U.S. House have signed on to oppose Biden’s electoral votes from Pennsylvania.

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Republicans have not said how long they will take to review Ziccarelli’s election challenge before voting on it, or how long the GOP majority is willing to leave the seat vacant. The open seat does not affect the balance of power in the Senate, where Republicans hold 28 of 50 seats.

When it came time for newly elected and reelected Senate Democrats to take the oath of office, Brewster stepped aside to defuse what had been shaping up as a standoff. Fetterman subsequently left the chamber.

“I had no desire to ruin picture day,” Fetterman said afterward. “It came down to, there’s got to be a way for both sides to maintain their dignity and we can find a way forward. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.”

A spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Fetterman hijacked the chamber’s order and decorum.

“When our rules are not followed, chaos takes over,” said the spokesperson, Jennifer Kocher.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said Brewster is the rightful winner and called the Senate Republicans' move “a shameful power grab that disgraces the institution.”

The state House begins the session with 113 Republican seats and 90 Democratic, although one of those GOP districts is vacant because of the death Saturday of Westmoreland County Republican Rep. Mike Reese. The House held a brief condolence ceremony for Reese.

The House swore in its members in four groups to limit potential coronavirus exposure. Each chamber's operating rules were also being considered, and House Democrats wanted mask wearing to be mandatory during floor sessions and committee meetings.

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Only a few House Republicans did not wear masks to take their oath of office.

The Senate voted to make Corman its presiding officer, and the House elected Lancaster County Republican Rep. Bryan Cutler as speaker.

In a double first, there are two woman serving this session as floor leaders — Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.

Legislators this year will have to figure out how to redraw congressional district lines based on new census results that are expected to cut one member of Congress from Pennsylvania's 18-member delegation.

Later this year, the four caucus leaders will also begin redrawing General Assembly lines with participation from a fifth member they can select. If they remain deadlocked on the fifth member, as is likely, the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court will chose the tie-breaking member for them.