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In Explosive Debate, Pa. GOP Refuses To Swear In Reelected Democratic Senator

President Trump's supporters gather Tuesday on the steps at the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg.
President Trump's supporters gather Tuesday on the steps at the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg.

With the nation's eyes toward Washington, D.C., ahead of Wednesday's planned confirmation of Joe Biden's presidential election, Republicans in the Pennsylvania state Senate refused a confirmation of their own. The state Senate's first session of the new year devolved into shouting Tuesday as the Republicans who hold a majority in the chamber refused to swear in a Democratic member who won reelection in November.

In a highly unusual move, GOP leaders forcefully seized control of the proceedings from Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman after Fetterman tried to insist on seating Sen. Jim Brewster, who is from the Pittsburgh area, for a new term.

The Republican majority voted to remove Fetterman from presiding as he attempted to keep control over the chamber while other Democrats joined in. Anthony Williams, a high-ranking Democrat from Philadelphia, shouted out Brewster's name as a clerk read off the names of other confirmed senators.

"We will not participate in this farce," Williams told Republican members.

Brewster's race has been the most intensely contested of all the commonwealth's 2020 down-ballot races.

The Department of State has confirmed that Brewster, the incumbent Democrat, won another term by 67 votes over Republican Nicole Ziccarelli — a verdict only reached after the state confirmed that certain mail ballots on which voters had failed to mark dates properly could still be counted.

Ziccarelli has challenged the results in federal court, and her case is still pending with no deadline for action. It asks for 311 mail ballots that arrived at election offices on time, but were missing handwritten dates, to be thrown out.

The state Supreme Court already ruled that such ballots can be counted. At issue in the case is that the Senate district includes parts of two counties. Allegheny County chose to count such mail ballots in question, but Westmoreland County opted against it.

Republican leaders have said they intend to keep the seat empty while they "review" the election outcome. Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman called the situation "fairly unique, if not unprecedented."

He and other Republicans did not say how long they intend to keep the seat empty, or what would end their review.

Democrats said they're outraged at what they view as a bald-faced attempt to overrule voters in the 45th District.

"Any delay is inappropriate, simply because Sen. Brewster is the winner of this race, but further because the residents of the 45th will have no voice in the Senate," said Brittany Crampsie, a spokeswoman for Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa. "As the body votes on critical issues of election reform, COVID relief, and judicial gerrymandering — they will have no vote, no voice, no say."

Brewster, who had been in the chamber, left before other senators were sworn in.

Crampsie said she had no idea how Republicans could justify seizing control of the chamber from Fetterman.

"I cannot defend or explain their hostile takeover," she said.

However, it is not the first time Republican leaders have clashed with Fetterman or removed him from presiding.

Jenn Kocher, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans, said the caucus's rationale was "because [Lt. Gov.] Fetterman failed to follow the rules."

Gov. Tom Wolf, meanwhile, followed up the episode by backing Fetterman and echoing accusations that Republicans are "spread[ing] disinformation and us[ing] it to subvert the democratic process."

"It is simply unethical and undemocratic to leave the district without a voice simply because the Republicans don't like the outcome of the election," he said. "Voters, not Harrisburg politicians, decided this election, and Sen. Brewster is the rightful winner."

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