The Pennsylvania Senate’s swearing-in ceremony devolved into a chaotic scene on Tuesday when state GOP senators refused to seat a Democratic member who had won reelection and seized control of the proceedings from the Democratic lieutenant governor after his objections.
Republicans in the chamber made a motion to not seat state Democratic Sen. Jim Brewster, whose narrow win in November is being challenged by his GOP opponent. The Pennsylvania Department of State has confirmed his win. The effort mirrors an ongoing push from some congressional Republicans to object to President-elect Joe Biden’s presidential victory even as his win has been confirmed by the Electoral College and lawsuits seeking to overturn the results have been widely dismissed.
When Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman objected to the motion Tuesday – insisting that Brewster be sworn in – the state GOP took the rare step of seizing control of the proceedings from him.
The intense sequence kicked off when GOP state Sen. Ryan Aument introduced the motion to not seat Brewster until “such time as the Senate had the opportunity for further consideration of the contest petition.”
When Fetterman refused to recognize the motion, Aument charged, “It is your duty to put a motion properly before this body. If you continue to refuse to perform your duties, the Senate will proceed to replace you with the interim president pro tempore.”
At the same time, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Republican, approached Fetterman at the front of the chamber before addressing the body as the new presiding official.
As Corman began to speak, though, Democratic state Sen. Anthony Williams offered a fiery retort, announcing loudly: “Mr. President, I totally object to this.”
“This is inappropriate. You are breaking the Constitution and the laws of the commonwealth and violating the oath of office you have actually taken. There is nothing about this day that is appropriate; nothing. We will not lay down and roll over because you got former folks on that side of the aisle. This is about Pennsylvania, not Democrats or Republicans,” Williams said.
“This is not about simply winning, it’s about protecting our democracy. That’s what this is.”
Williams can then be heard yelling, “We will not participate in this farce,” as the Republican majority began a roll call to officially remove Fetterman from presiding.
Even as the motion passed, Fetterman continued to stand at the rostrum looking down on Corman before ultimately leaving the chamber when new members – with the exception of Brewster – were sworn in.
The scene drew swift backlash from Democrats across the state, including Gov. Tom Wolf, who said in a statement, “This is a shameful power grab that disgraces the institution.”
“It is simply unethical and undemocratic to leave the district without a voice simply because the Republicans don’t like the outcome of the election. Voters, not Harrisburg politicians, decided this election, and Sen. Brewster is the rightful winner,” Wolf said.
“All ballots were counted and certified, and the results are accurate. Sen. Brewster received the most votes in this race and should be sworn in as the Senator for the 45th District. There is no precedent, and no legal rationale, for failing to do so,” he added.
Fetterman told CNN Wednesday that “there was no justification for what happened yesterday” and accused Republicans of “subverting the democratic will of the citizens of Pennsylvania.”
“This was simply a bizarre flex by the majority in order to create an environment that is compatible and is similar to the one that the President is trying to create in Washington, all across the country,” he told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota.
The state Republicans’ case for not sitting Brewster rests on a lawsuit filed by his opponent, Nicole Ziccarelli. She is seeking to overturn her election loss through the removal of some Allegheny County mail-in ballots that didn’t include handwritten dates on their outer declaration envelopes.
Matthew Haverstick, an attorney for Ziccarelli, celebrated the state GOP’s efforts Tuesday, telling CNN in a statement he’s confident in their lawsuit.
CNN has reached out to Brewster for comment.
It’s unclear how long the state GOP plans to keep the seat empty.
Corman said in a news release before the swearing-in ceremony, “We understand that this issue needs to be resolved promptly, while ensuring that the constituents of the 45th Senate District have properly elected representation.”
This story has been updated with additional information Tuesday and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s appearance on CNN Wednesday.
CNN’s Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.