New Pa. House session starts with drama over speakership

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HARRISBURG -- Two months after their pickup of eight seats in the state House, Democrats go into today's vote for speaker with a fragile majority that may not give them much more influence over the chamber than they had during 12 years in the minority.

The announcement by Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone, D-Berks, that he is supporting Philadelphia Republican John Perzel for another term as speaker may ruin many of his colleagues' dreams of running committees and finally giving their own agendas an airing.

Democratic gains in November left them with a 102-101 lead, and they had planned to assume the reins of power at the start of the coming two-year session. But the speaker sets the House's voting agenda and moves bills into committees, making it the most powerful job in the chamber.

Mr. Caltagirone's bombshell came Saturday in the form of a letter to fellow House Democrats that said he lacked confidence in his party's leader, Rep. Bill DeWeese of Waynesburg, and would be voting for Mr. Perzel. He said he is not switching parties.

Mr. Perzel's spokesman said he would push for a set of rule changes that Mr. Caltagirone had sought.

About 50 people rallied yesterday at Mr. Caltagirone's Reading district office to protest his planned vote for Mr. Perzel.

Michael Morrill, a member of the Berks County Democratic Committee, said constituents were "very, very angry" with Mr. Caltagirone and were hoping the rally would spur him to reconsider.

T.J. Rooney, chairman of the state Democratic Party, released a statement calling the situation a "desperate" move by Republicans.

"By selling out to House Speaker John Perzel, Caltagirone will go down in history with the likes of other traitors who have given Republicans an opportunity to stifle progressive legislation that helps working families in Pennsylvania while advancing the cause of big business and the elite at everyone else's expense," Mr. Rooney said.

Mr. Caltagirone's decision to vote against his party came after an extended fight over a Chester County seat -- including a hand recount of ballots -- that culminated Dec. 21 with the Republican candidate's concession.

The latest turmoil follows a year-and-a-half of remarkable events in the Legislature triggered by the members' vote to give themselves hefty pay raises in the middle of the night immediately before leaving for summer vacations in July 2005. Twenty-four incumbents lost elections in 2006. The class of 31 retirees included many of the General Assembly's most senior members, adding to the sense of change.

The two highest-ranking state senators were among those defeated, although that chamber's 29-21 GOP majority came through the election unchanged from the last session.

The House and Senate will convene at noon today.

Five new senators, all Republicans, will be sworn in. The Senate is expected to adopt rules designed to make bills under consideration and voting records more accessible.

In the House, 50 new members, or nearly one-fourth of the chamber, will take the oath -- 23 Republicans and 27 Democrats.

Even if Republicans keep the speakership, life will still change for them, particularly compared to the time just over four years ago when they held majorities in both chambers and the governor's office. Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, easily won a second four-year term in November.

"You really are in the legislative wilderness if you're in the minority, and particularly if you don't have the governor," said Franklin & Marshall College political scientist Terry Madonna. "There is no desert quite like that."

Among the newcomers will be Republican Garth D. Everett, a 52-year-old Muncy lawyer elected to replace retiring Rep. Brett Feese, R-Lycoming. Mr. Everett's wife, children and parents are expected to be on hand for his swearing-in, giving them an up-close look as the speakership vote unfolds.



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