Pennsylvania Senate GOP kicked out top official and refused to seat Democrat. Now what happens?

Republican challenger is suing to throw out hundreds of mail-in ballots that were approved by state Supreme Court

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 6, 2021 12:27PM (EST)

John Fetterman (Getty Images)
John Fetterman (Getty Images)

Republican state senators in Pennsylvania refused to seat a Democratic senator on Tuesday because his GOP challenger disputed the certified results of the November election.

The Republican senators, some of whom recently backed President Donald Trump's baseless bid to overturn his defeat in the state, refused to seat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jim Brewster. The Democrat defeated Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli by 69 votes, a result that has been certified by the secretary of state. But Ziccarelli has filed a federal lawsuit against Allegheny County, seeking to throw out hundreds of mail-in ballots that did not include a handwritten date on the ballot envelope but which the state Supreme Court allowed the county to tabulate. The 311 ballots in question favor Brewster by a two-to-one margin, meaning that throwing them out would be enough to reverse the election result if the suit is successful. Brewster has argued that the federal court has no jurisdiction to overturn a state Supreme Court decision.

Republicans said they would not seat Brewster because the case was still pending in federal court.

State Sen. Jake Corman, the top Republican in the Senate, called it a "fairly unique, if not unprecedented situation."

"I think this unique set of circumstances dictates that the Senate review it and take very seriously the contest," he said.

The move set off a shouting match with Democrats, who accused the GOP of trying to "steal an election."

"This is only the Republican Party trying to steal an election and not allow it to go forward given the fact that they believe that they disagree with the court's decision. And they want to take it upon themselves and render a different decision," Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat, shouted on the Senate floor, arguing the stunt was right out of "the Trump playbook."

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who presided over the session, refused to recognize the Republican measure, prompting the GOP senators to vote to have him removed from the chamber.

"I'm not sure why we're voting. We've crossed a bridge, we've broken all sorts of rules today," state Sen. Anthony Williams, a Democrat, complained.

Fetterman initially refused to leave and tried to speak over Corman but ultimately relented.

"There was no sense in me remaining," he told The Washington Post. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that Corman had "subverted the democratic will of the voters."

Democrats countered by refusing to back Corman as president pro tempore of the Senate.

"The president pro tempore is to be a leader for the entire body — not of one party," Costa said. "Nowhere in the constitution does it say that the leader should be beholden to the partisan whims of his own party."

It's unclear how long Republicans plan to block Brewster from being seated.

"While we work to resolve this issue expeditiously we … are confident a brief delay in filling the seat for the 45th Senate District will not affect the balance of power in the Senate," Corman said in a statement, adding that the district's residents "will continue to receive assistance with their state-related issues."

Brewster, who has represented his district in McKeesport, just southeast of Pittsburgh, for the last decade, said he was concerned that the process could "take months."

"This doesn't look good for our government. Doesn't look good for our state," he told the Post. "Let me get on with my job — the budget, the pandemic, all those things. And let the legal challenges play out."

Under Pennsylvania law, senators can object to a swearing-in if someone is "unqualified," according to the Post. But Democrats said Republicans were abusing the statute.

"They're trying to usurp the authority of the courts as to whether or not ballots should be counted," Costa told the outlet.

"What is going on now is way beyond anything envisioned in the constitution," Brewster's attorney, Cliff Levine, told Spotlight PA. "The Senate majority is taking it upon itself to decide an election."

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, said the refusal to seat Brewster was "simply unethical and undemocratic" and said there was no precedent or "legal rationale" for the measure.

"Republicans in Pennsylvania and nationally have spread disinformation and used it to subvert the democratic process," he said in a statement. "Voters, not Harrisburg politicians, decided this election, and Sen. Brewster is the rightful winner."

The seat will not affect the balance of power in the chamber, where Republicans hold 28 of 50 seats.

But Democrats argued that the move showed the extent to which Trump's attacks on the democratic system had poisoned the Republican Party.

"It's Trumpian in its very essence, because that's what he's trying to do in Washington, D.C.," said Democratic state Sen. Vincent Hughes, pointing to Trump's attempt to pressure Georgia officials to overturn his loss. "Just listen to the tapes of him and the election officials in Georgia. Do you see a similarity? Do you see a connection? Do you see where this all comes together?"

Fetterman said both attempts to overturn election results, in Pennsylvania and nationwide, are being carried out by "people who know they are lying."

"It's part of this toxic culture that has seeped into our political discourse," he told CNN on Wednesday, "where you have a party willing to subvert basic core democracy."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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