Pa. lawmakers sworn in at start of 2-year General Assembly term

Pennsylvania lawmakers took the oath of office Tuesday, convening in the state Capitol on New Year's Day under a state constitutional mandate they meet on the first Tuesday of the year.

Forty-two House members and seven senators were sworn in for the first time after winning elections in November.

Both chambers have smaller but still substantial Republican majorities compared to last session, 110 to 93 in the House and 29 to 21 in the Senate.

There are two vacancies among the 93 House Democratic seats, and a Republican senator is expected to step down and be sworn in to Congress later this week.

The 43rd House freshman, Rep.-elect Liz Hanbidge, D-Montgomery, will likely be sworn in later this month, after she returns from her honeymoon.

MORE: State House leadership elections bring change to Harrisburg | Scanlon is first woman in Pa. delegation since 2014

The biggest change in leadership is in the House, where Rep. Bryan Cutler took over as majority leader, replacing Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, who did not seek re-election to the Legislature.

Cutler urged members to "learn one another's life stories in a personal and meaningful way," recounting details of his own background in Lancaster County.

The House voted 142-58 to approve rule changes that including having the Ethics Committee investigate sexual harassment allegations, to cut from 24 hours to 12 hours the time that must pass before a final vote on an amended bill and to allow people who are not legislators or religious leaders to give the House's opening prayer.

The House also set up a new panel called the House Government Oversight Committee, made up of five majority-party members and four from the minority. It will have subpoena power and authority to take up matters on referral from the speaker or either floor leader.

Allegheny County Republican Rep. Mike Turzai was re-elected to retain the gavel as speaker, as was Republican Sen. Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County as his chamber's president pro tempore.

Scarnati urged his colleagues to treat one another with civility and "come together to find a compromise, to get results, because it's results that we're judged by at the end of the day."

The Senate will have a new presiding officer once Braddock Mayor John Fetterman becomes lieutenant governor later this month.

Senate rule changes addressed proper attire for members and staff, phone use in the chamber and access to amendments.

Fetterman beat incumbent Lt. Gov. Mike Stack in last year's Democratic primary and was elected along with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who won a second term.

In the Senate, Scarnati ended weeks of uncertainty on Friday by announcing he supported the seating of Democrat Lindsey Williams in an Allegheny County district. Republicans had raised questions about whether Williams had lived in the state for four years to the day before being elected, a state constitutional requirement. She was sworn in.

Williams' win was one of five Republican seats in the Senate that Democrats flipped in November, including four in the Philadelphia suburbs. The two new Republican senators are Judy Ward of Blair County and Kristin Phillips-Hill of York County, both filling vacancies created when an incumbent sought higher office.

Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny, is scheduled to be sworn in to Congress on Thursday. A message left at his Capitol office Tuesday, seeking an update on his status, was not returned.

There are two vacancies in the House. Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, resigned after being sentenced to probation in November for a bribery conviction, and Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-Lackawanna, died in office in October.

The first major item of legislative business will occur Feb. 5, when Wolf gives the governor's annual budget address.

Lawmakers may also again consider legislation, spiked last fall by Senate Republicans, to provide a "window" for civil lawsuits over claims of child sexual abuse that would otherwise be too old to pursue.

Among those not returning to the Legislature due to retirement are Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Clinton, who had been his party's whip; Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, a major figure for decades in legal issues in the Capitol; and Rep. Bob Godshall, R-Montgomery, who spent 36 years in the chamber.