HARRISBURG, Pa. — The new legislative session began at noon on Tuesday, and despite the cheery bouquets and wide-eyed family members, the statehouse was humming with nervous anticipation. For weeks, it had been unclear which party could claim a majority in the state House of Representatives: the Democrats won more seats in November, but because of a death and two resignations, the Republicans had more members for now.
The election of a speaker, the new House’s first piece of business, was going to put this fiercely debated question to the test.
After a long afternoon of suspense, and to the surprise of nearly everyone in the House, the choice was made: a moderate Democrat from the Reading area, nominated by two Republicans, who was on almost no one’s radar and who pledged in his first speech to be “the commonwealth’s first independent speaker.”
“I’m sure a lot of you didn’t see this coming today,” the new speaker, Representative Mark Rozzi, said at the rostrum.
Harrisburg is not the only capital where the mere act of deciding who is in charge has proved fraught in the early days of the new year. Before the session in Pennsylvania began, the repeated botched attempts by Republicans in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday to elect a speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives were playing out on televisions in the Pennsylvania statehouse. Meanwhile, Democratic state representatives next door in Ohio helped elect a Republican House speaker there who is not as conservative as the candidate backed by most Republicans in their supermajority.
The fights in Washington and Ohio were ideological, but the maneuvering in Pennsylvania was largely about strategy, given the bizarre circumstances leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Democrats outperformed expectations on Election Day in Pennsylvania, winning a U.S. Senate seat, the governor’s office and, perhaps most surprising of all, control of the state House, where they had been out of power for more than a decade.
It was only a one-seat majority, though, and one of the winning candidates had died a few weeks before the November election. Then, in early December, two Democrats who had been re-elected to the House and at the same time had been elected to higher offices resigned their House seats.
At issue in the weeks that followed was whether “majority” meant the party that the voters in the most districts had chosen, or the party that had the most members at the moment the session began. The Democrats argued for the former, the Republicans the latter. The question was put to the courts, even as Republicans and Democrats held dueling swearing-in ceremonies last month for House majority leader.
Democrats are heavily favored to win the special elections to fill the three vacant seats, but the first of those votes won’t take place until at least Feb. 7. So the looming question as the session opened Tuesday was which party would control the House for now, while Republicans have a 101-99 advantage.
The significance was not just symbolic, even in a state where power was already divided, with a Republican-controlled State Senate and a Democratic governor. Republicans hoped to vote on several constitutional amendments that would not require Gov. Josh Shapiro’s signature; one would require voters to show identification at the polls and another would give the legislature the power to reject regulations put in place by the executive branch. Democrats were worried that the Republicans would also change the rules of the House if they briefly won control, making it hard to elect a new speaker after the Democrats retook the majority.
Caucuses and party leaders gathered all morning on Tuesday to discuss strategy, talks that continued in the afternoon in smaller huddles on the House floor. A vote to adjourn without picking a speaker deadlocked at 100-100, with one Republican voting with the Democrats.
Then the clerk called for nominations for speaker. What came next were a series of surprises. First, Representative Jim Gregory, a Republican representing a district outside Altoona, stood and named Mr. Rozzi, a Democrat.
“As we are gathered in this chamber today, we must look at our razor-thin majorities,” Mr. Gregory said, urging the members to put “people over politics.” Then another lawmaker, the Republican House whip, seconded the nomination.
All eyes turned toward the Democrats, and specifically toward Representative Joanna McClinton, the Democratic leader, who had been expected to become the first Black woman to serve as speaker of the Pennsylvania House. Ms. McClinton announced that she supported the nomination of Mr. Rozzi.
With 16 Republicans, including party leaders, joining all of the Democrats, Mr. Rozzi won the speakership, defeating a traditionally conservative Republican who only minutes earlier had been the presumptive Republican choice.
Virtually no one in the House other than Mr. Gregory and Mr. Rozzi, it seemed, had recognized Mr. Rozzi as a candidate when the day began. Mr. Gregory said afterward that he raised the idea with Republican leaders shortly before nominating him on the floor. Mr. Gregory had developed a good working relationship with Mr. Rozzi, but he also saw nominating him as a way to outflank an almost assured Democratic majority.
“Here in Pennsylvania, we play two different games: Some people play checkers, and some people play chess,” Mr. Gregory said after the vote. “And I think what you just witnessed is a Democrat member who was in the majority leave the majority to go independent.”
As the Republicans saw it, Mr. Rozzi’s move would mean that the Democrats could not achieve a majority even after the special elections. In the halls of the capitol afterward, Republicans mulled how such an evenly split House would operate: who would control committees, for example, and how they would be divvied up.
But it had all happened so quickly that on Wednesday, there were far more questions than answers. Mr. Rozzi, who has been a reliable moderate Democrat during his tenure in the House, is best known for his efforts on behalf of victims of childhood sexual abuse. Having spoken openly of being raped by a priest as a child, Mr. Rozzi sponsored, along with Mr. Gregory, a constitutional amendment allowing victims to sue their abusers long after criminal statutes had expired.
If the House and Senate vote on it early in the new session, that amendment could be on the ballot as soon as this May. Mr. Gregory said that making sure the House moved quickly on the amendment was the main reason that he and Mr. Rozzi had begun discussing their plan for the speakership.
While Mr. Rozzi did emphasize in his initial remarks before the House that he aimed to be an independent speaker, pledging not to caucus with either party, it remained unclear what that would mean in practice.
In a private meeting with Democrats after the vote on Tuesday, Mr. Rozzi assured them that he still considered himself a Democrat, comments first reported by SpotlightPA, a state news outlet, and confirmed by a Democratic House member.
In response, the House Republican leader, Representative Bryan Cutler, said in a statement that Republicans “continue to believe what he committed to publicly in his address and what he promised to our leaders privately about fully becoming an Independent has not changed.”
On Tuesday evening, after hours of hushed meetings, Mr. Rozzi briefly addressed a crowd of reporters in the capitol rotunda who were hungry for any information that would make sense of the day’s events.
“I look forward to talking to you more about my plans as speaker, but such a heavy discussion deserves considered forethought,” the new House speaker of the fifth-largest state said, standing in the glare of spotlights at a hastily assembled lectern. “And as this was unexpected, I will be making no further comments tonight. Thank you.”
Many of the lingering questions may not be answered until the House reconvenes, at a time to be set by the speaker. As of Wednesday afternoon, no date had been announced.