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Fetterman after being removed from Pa. Senate: 'There's a sickness in our democracy'

Candy Woodall
USA TODAY Network Pennsylvania Capitol Bureau

Jake Corman and John Fetterman had a cordial discussion before the start of a bitter legislative session Tuesday. 

Fetterman, a Democrat who presides over the state Senate as lieutenant governor, and Corman, a Republican who was on the verge of formally becoming the Senate president pro tempore, maintained a civil conversation despite starkly different beliefs about the fate of the 45th Senate district seat. 

More:GOP senators remove Fetterman as Senate president, Capitol devolves into partisan fight

But the good tidings didn't last, leading to a remarkable floor fight that ended in Fetterman's removal as the Senate's presiding officer. The move made national headlines and signaled the beginning of what may be a bitterly divided legislative session amid a politically divisive national landscape.

Republicans were accused of simply rejecting the will of the people in one close election of a Democratic senator, drawing comparisons to the fight in Congress over confirming President-elect Joe Biden's victory.

Corman signaled Monday night that the Senate would delay the swearing-in for the 45th seat because of an ongoing legal dispute.

Sen. Jim Brewster, a three-term incumbent, won Allegheny County's 45th Senate district by a razor-thin margin of 69 votes. 

The state certified Brewster's election, but the Republican-controlled state Senate wasn't ready to recognize him as a winner.

Brewster's victory is being challenged in federal court and in state Senate procedures by his Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli. 

Corman said lawmakers needed time to review a petition Ziccarelli filed with the Senate on Jan. 1 and Brewster’s response, which are more than 700 pages combined. 

Fetterman told Corman it didn't have to go that way.

Brewster, who represents Fetterman's home Senate district, could have been sworn in Tuesday and would step down if a federal court overturned his election, the lieutenant governor said to Corman. 

"I said it wasn't good for our state or the 45th district," Fetterman said Tuesday night by phone. 

Corman, in a video statement, said he warned Fetterman that he would have to follow the rules of the Senate and couldn't apply his own standards and values. Fetterman's job was to preside over the Senate and follow and enforce the rules, Corman said.

"He did not follow the rules," Corman said.

Floor fight ensues in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman walks from the Senate chamber after he was sworn into office Jan. 15, 2019, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

During a rancorous debate in the Senate chamber about whether to seat Brewster, Fetterman was calling on Democrats, and Republicans said they weren't being heard.

At one point, there seemed to be dual proceedings on the Senate floor, with Corman conducting the business of the Republicans and Fetterman conducting the business of the Democrats. 

Ultimately, the Senate voted to remove Fetterman from his post. 

"He chose not to follow the rules," Corman said. "It's a sad day for Pennsylvania. This is not how we're supposed to conduct our business. But when you don't follow the rules, anarchy and chaos follow. And this is the second time this has happened with this particular lieutenant governor. And it's unfortunate, but he demeans us all when he acts like this."

Fetterman was previously removed from the Senate in June 2019 when Republicans voted to repeal a cash assistance program for the poor.

Fetterman allowed a Democrat to speak while Republicans called for a vote, so they removed the lieutenant governor from the proceedings. 

Fetterman said he was removed Tuesday for allowing a motion to proceed that would enable Brewster to be credentialed similar to every other senator being sworn in. 

"There's no reason for this to have occurred," Fetterman told the USA TODAY Network. "No reason other than bitter partisanship."

Brewster has won all legal challenges so far, including in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One federal case has yet to be decided, but that decision could come Friday, lawmakers said. 

"If a court case went south for Brewster, he would've stepped down," Fetterman said.

Swearing him in wouldn't have changed control of the Senate chamber. Brewster is a rank-and-file member and one of the most conservative Democrats you can find in the Senate, Fetterman said.

Swearing him in is "just basic courtesy," Fetterman said. "He's a serving member of the Senate for over a decade. Now our district doesn't have a state senator."

More:GOP senators remove Fetterman as Senate president, Capitol devolves into partisan fight

A sign of conflict to come in Pennsylvania

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman went on a tour of all 67 Pennsylvania counties to get feedback from residents on recreational marijuana legalization. Fetterman joined Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday in calling for action to legalize the drug.

Democrats made passionate arguments on the Senate floor and in public statements to the media and their constituents, calling Tuesday's session "a farce" that stole the election in the 45th Senate district.

Fetterman said Republicans didn't steal the election.

"They denied it," he said. "It's an unconstitutional breech of basic democracy."

The state Supreme Court is democratically elected and already ruled that Brewster's win is valid, Fetterman said.

"The idea that Republicans don't like an election result and therefore won't seat an elected member cannot work in an American democracy," he said.

Corman said the Senate "will move expeditiously to resolve this matter."

The case before federal court looks at how the two counties in the 45th Senate district counted votes differently.

Westmoreland County, which is heavily Republican, did not count votes that weren't properly signed or date marked. Allegheny County, which is heavily Democratic, counted votes that weren't date marked on the outer envelope, according to the lawsuit.

Corman said he's always conscious of the precedent the Senate is setting. He hopes people will look at the Senate and believe it handled this issue appropriately by giving due process. 

"As president pro tempore, my job is fairness and making sure there’s fairness in this process," Corman said.

"That’s why we want to make sure all parties are heard from, that all the facts are given to the members so they can make a decision, and we proceed in a way that everyone has had their chance to be heard and everyone that is involved receives due process. That is critical in something like this."

In the end, even if everyone doesn’t agree with the outcome, they can see the process was fair, he said.

As for the Senate fight Tuesday, Fetterman's ousting will be short-lived. 

"It was a one-day motion," said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republican leaders.

The Senate has authority to vote and remove Fetterman because of Senate rules, Mason's Manual and Robert's Rules of Order, she said. For example, Mason's Manual empowers the Senate to "pass by" the presiding officer if he thwarts the purpose of his office. 

Fetterman will return to his post presiding over the Senate when the chamber is back in session Jan. 25. 

But the lieutenant governor on Tuesday night said he wasn't concerned about his return. 

"The idea isn’t to create chaos," Fetterman said. "It's to create harmony to work together. I'm not here to inflame things."

More:Nearly all Republican Pa. congressmen say they will vote against Biden win this week

A divisive start in Harrisburg

The Capitol steps in Harrisburg.

But divisions at the start of the legislative session showed coming together this year may not be easy. 

As shouting continued inside the Senate chamber Tuesday, there were about 150 supporters of President Donald Trump yelling outside Fetterman's office window that "crooks were stealing the election," he said. 

"There's a sickness in our democracy," Fetterman said. "I hope it recedes when Trump is removed from office."

But the partisan divide is likely to continue, according to Terry Madonna, senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University. 

"I don't think it will go away after the inauguration on January 20th. I think it will worsen," he said.

The state will face a $5 billion budget hole and a redistricting fight while staring down a gubernatorial race and U.S. Senate race with no incumbents.

If history repeats itself, neither party will want to take on big agenda items during a run up to the 2022 election, even though there are big issues in the state that need urgent attention in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. 

That work becomes harder given the partisan divide that deepened during the Trump administration, Madonna said.

"Not only is it partisan and political, it has become personal," he said.

"I'm not saying all Democrats and Republicans don’t like each other. But personal relationships that used to exist have deteriorated significantly. It's hard to make deals and get things done."

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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