After a sudden midterm resignation, the Pennsylvania House Republican leadership has undergone a shake up.
The biggest promotion is for Bryan Cutler, who at 45 years old, is now the newest speaker of the Pennsylvania House.
In a closed door meeting his Republican colleagues picked Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, to be the new majority leader. Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, will be his second-in-command at whip.
They take over the lower chamber in the middle of turbulent political times. The state is still slowly reopening amid the specter of COVID-19, and faces a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall that still must be filled.
Meanwhile, protesters continue to march in the street asking for policing reform, all with less than five months until the 2020 election, with both the presidency of Donald Trump and control of the General Assembly potentially up for grabs.
Speaking to the press Monday evening, the new leaders promised new ideas, but declined to go into specifics of their agenda for the next five months, only saying they’d bring a hands-off style.
“We all made a concerted effort to do a more bottom-up style leadership,” Cutler said.
Benninghoff acknowledged the challenge of the moment, but said that “oftentimes adversity creates ingenuity.”
“As I encouraged our caucus earlier today, maybe we need to take some big bold steps,” Benninghoff said of governing amid protests and the pandemic. “Maybe not just always do budgets like we’ve done them every other time, but look for opportunities to do things a little differently.”
A quick rise
First elected in 2006, Cutler’s nearly 14-year long ascent to hold the speaker’s gavel is among the quickest in modern history.
Elected as part of the 2006 pay raise controversy, Cutler, a former x-ray technician and attorney, has only served in leadership since 2016, and was majority leader for just 18 months.
And his leadership style also stands in stark contrast to his predecessor, Allegheny County Republican Speaker Mike Turzai.
While Turzai is known for prioritizing his ideology over all others, even fellow Republicans, Cutler is described as an even-tempered wonk who relies on compromise even as he takes strong ideological stands.
“The Cutler House will allow us to develop great ideas,” Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, said on the House Floor while nominating Cutler for speaker.
As speaker, Cutler will now have a say over the day-to-day operations of the chamber, calling up bills, enforcing rules, and controlling the chamber’s debate.
Cutler’s supporters have pointed to his brief record as majority leader as a sign of hope. As leader, Cutler has allowed votes on bills he does not support, from okaying hunting on Sunday to allowing to-go mixed drinks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Cutler has also received skepticism from Democrats due to his decision to hide a positive COVID-19 case from fellow House lawmakers and staff, citing federal medical privacy laws.
On Monday, they nominated their own leader, Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, for the speakership. All but two Democrats voted for Dermody before — as is chamber custom — the veteran Democrat asked that Cutler’s election instead be recorded as unanimous.
Rhyme and reason
Cutler’s record includes both an allegiance to bedrock conservative principles, as well as an eye for policy, particularly in health care.
In 2019, he and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf cooperated to create a state health care exchange, with proceeds funding a program to lower insurance premiums.
Cutler has also authored an update to the state’s lobbying disclosure rules, stricter controls on a state low income utility assistance programs, and changes to hospital licensing, all of which have become law.
Rep. Pam DeLissio, D-Philadelphia and a fellow health care industry veteran, worked with Cutler on the latter.
At first, DeLissio said, the bill had “special interest language” that benefited doctors and anesthesiologists. She and Cutler found common cause in blocking the bill, taking out the offending measures, and turning it into law.
That experience, DeLissio said, was a “bonding experience” and assured her that Cutler is an honest broker.
Despite the last three months of partisan, pandemic-inflamed tensions — culminating in a positive COVID-19 case in the Capitol — DeLissio said her belief in Cutler hasn’t wavered.
“I have enough of a relationship with him, times nine and a half years, to give him the benefit of the doubt that there was a rhyme and a reason,” DeLissio said of how he handled the case. “Whether I agree with that rhyme or reason may be a different story.”
She also acknowledged there are plenty of spaces where she disagrees with Cutler.
For example, he supports the usual conservative position on many issues, including opposing abortion rights and supporting gun rights, though he did vote in 2018 to make it easier to take guns from convicted domestic abusers.
In 2015, following the Paris terrorist attacks, he voiced skepticism about allowing Syrian refugees into the state.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cutler has also been at the forefront of the General Assembly’s efforts to reopen Pennsylvania, scheduling votes to reopen industries on a piecemeal basis, while forcefully arguing for the separation of powers.
Cutler’s election as speaker Monday also began a cascading effect of leadership openings that Republicans filled in a closed door meeting by secret ballots.
Benninghoff, R-Centre, formerly the whip, was elected as the new Majority Leader by his GOP colleagues. He beat House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, for the position.
As leader, Benninghoff is charged with setting the House agenda and shepherding bills from committee to final passage.
First elected in 1996, he said he plans to, like Cutler, look to his colleagues for an agenda, rather than push his own agenda as leader.
Oberlander will succeed Benninghoff as the next whip. She is now in charge of party discipline, and must wrangle Republican lawmaker’s votes on key bills. In a statement, she said she was “honored and humbled” to take the position.
With her win, Oberlander is among the highest-ranking female lawmakers to ever serve in the General Assembly. Two other women have served as the whip, according to the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. No woman has held a higher legislative position.
Oberlander, who previously served a Republican policy chair, was then replaced by Rep. Martin Causer, R-McKean. Causer won a seven-way race to fill the position. Causer will now travel the state, holding hearings to shape and develop the majority’s agenda.
Stephen Caruso is a reporter with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.