HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s legislature kicked off its two-year session Tuesday with celebratory receptions and swearing-in ceremonies, all devoid of the tension that could quickly settle over its dealings with the Wolf administration.
The “new” legislature will include more women and more Democrats. But Republicans will still hold firm majorities in both chambers — and their ranks will be more conservative, as the “blue wave” in the November election wiped out many of the more moderate GOP lawmakers from the Philadelphia suburbs.
The new power dynamic could set the stage for a chillier relationship between the legislature and newly reelected Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat once proclaimed America’s most liberal governor, and his new second-in-command, Lt. Gov.-elect John Fetterman, also an unabashed progressive. Within weeks, the two sides will have to grapple with Pennsylvania’s sobering financial reality, one that independent analysts say includes a $1 billion-plus budget deficit.
Still, none of those looming strains were on display in the Capitol on Tuesday, as legislators, along with friends and family — cameras in hand — gathered for the pomp-and-circumstance of swearing-in day.
In the Senate, there are seven new lawmakers, including four from the counties ringing Philadelphia: Sens. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery), Maria Collett (D., Montgomery), Timothy Kearney (D., Delaware) and Steve Santarsiero (D., Bucks).
Another new face, Sen. Lindsey Williams, is a Democrat from Allegheny County who was sworn in Tuesday — to loud cheers from supporters and friends who had gathered in the Senate gallery — after weeks of uncertainty. Republicans who control the chamber had questioned whether she met the state Constitution’s residency requirement for legislators, and had asked her to turn over troves of documents to prove she had.
Late last week, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) announced he would recommend Williams be seated despite some lingering concerns.
And on Tuesday, Williams appeared relaxed and happy, saying all her colleagues had been cordial and gracious.
“It was smooth,” Williams said of the day, adding that Scarnati walked up to welcome her. She said she looked forward to working on the issues she spoke about during her campaign, including access to affordable health care and adequate funding for public education.
Scarnati, who on Tuesday was reelected to the top leadership post, spoke about the need for Democrats and Republicans to “bring civility here.”
“While we are clearly a diverse group, it is crucial that we remember to also be a body that works together in a civil manner despite our differences,” Scarnati said in remarks on the Senate floor.
In all, Democrats picked up five seats in the Senate in this last election cycle, thanks in large part to voters in the southeastern part of the state. Even so, Republicans still dominate the chamber, holding 29 of its 50 seats.
Women, too, nearly doubled their presence. Last session, there were seven female senators; in the new two-year session, there will be 12.
In the 203-member House, there are 43 newly elected members — again, with more than half elected by voters in either Philadelphia and its suburbs or Allegheny County. They include Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler (D., Philadelphia), , Meghan Schroeder (R., Bucks), Jennifer O’Mara (D., Delaware), , Wendi Thomas (R., Bucks), Mary Isaacson (D, Philadelphia), and Todd Polinchock (R., Bucks).
As in the Senate, both women and Democrats gained seats in the House. Democrats now hold 91 seats (that does not include two vacant seats once held by Democrats, for which there will be a special election this year). That is up from 82 last session.
Women command 51 seats, up from 42 last session.
Also flexing new political muscle in the chamber, at least in Democratic circles, will be lawmakers from the Philadelphia area.