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How Pennsylvania broke through its House speaker logjam as Washington remains stuck

A handful of Republicans joined with Democrats to choose a compromise candidate in a fast and stunning move.
Image: Mark Rozzi
Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi on Jan. 3, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. Matt Smith / AP

Faced with a razor-thin divide in the legislature, lawmakers quickly and unexpectedly coalesced around a surprising compromise pick for speaker this week that, when boosted by more than a dozen members of the opposition party, secured a solution that few thought would be possible so quickly.

Obviously, this is not a story about Washington, D.C., where Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s unsuccessful — and still ongoing — attempt to become speaker will go down in history

This is a story about Pennsylvania, where Democratic lawmakers, faced with a deadlock Tuesday, backed state Rep. Mark Rozzi, a moderate rank-and-file member of their party few expected to rise in this moment. Rozzi pledged he would operate as an independent, drawing 16 Republican votes to get him over the top.

But Pennsylvania lawmakers say there are some lessons U.S. House Republicans can take from their contested speaker race — namely, that the best deal might be with those across the aisle rather than those in your party's far flank. These lawmakers argue that a real compromise, however, will likely leave everyone feeling a bit shorted. And that’s a good thing.

State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, a member of the Democratic leadership in Pennsylvania who was pleased with the deal that led to Rozzi’s incoming speakership, told NBC News: "We were committed to not letting the radicals win," pointing to the state-level Freedom Caucus recently assembled in the Keystone State.

Republicans "had their idea of who they wanted for speaker and we had our original idea of who we wanted first," Bizzarro, an Erie-area Democrat, added. "There was a compromise. And we saw that reflected with the vote and hopefully Washington can get a chance to see what we did and go from there. Because when both sides walk away from the table feeling like they got screwed, that was a big compromise."

Rozzi’s nomination came together at breakneck speed Tuesday, with both sides still having questions about how his leadership would work, members of both parties said. Following the November election, Democrats won a one-seat majority in the state House, a chamber the party had not controlled in more than a decade. But the majority was quickly imperiled as one member died shortly before the election, while two more vacated their seats after winning higher office. Special elections for their seats, which are considered to be in safe Democratic-leaning districts, are set for February.

State Rep. Jim Gregory, a Republican representing a district near Altoona who ultimately nominated Rozzi, said his caucus was “basically resigned to the clock” running out Tuesday and the body adjourning until after the February special elections. Gregory and Rozzi, both survivors of childhood sexual abuse, worked closely on an effort to give victims of such abuse a new window to sue perpetrators or institutions that shielded the abuse notwithstanding existing statute of limitations that prevented such claims.

Gregory said he was joking around with state Rep. Tim O’Neal, a member of the Republican leadership, about tapping Rozzi to be speaker. But the kidding was soon put aside as GOP leaders considered having Rozzi serve as an independent in exchange for winning over Republican votes — an arrangement that, following the special elections, would divide the chamber 101-101-1, with Rozzi not caucusing with either party. Rozzi, first elected in 2012, agreed.

“Leadership called me up to the front of the room, took me in the back room and said, ‘We just got Mark to flip to independent,” he said.

Democratic leader Joanna McClinton, a Philadelphia-based representative, soon announced she would withdraw her bid for speaker and asked her members to back Rozzi. McClinton declined comment for this story, while Rozzi did not respond to a request for comment.

“And then he does his acceptance speech and announces that he’s now going to be an independent,” Gregory said, adding Democrats "didn’t see it coming. They had no idea."

Rozzi, a Reading-area Democrat, was elected by a 115-85 vote over Republican Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, with Rozzi earning the backing of all Democrats and 16 Republicans, including all members of the GOP leadership.  

“It was very short,” Republican leader Bryan Cutler, who represents a district near Lancaster, said of the amount of time it took between when Rozzi’s candidacy was first suggested and his securing the votes to win. On whether Democrats were aware of the full ramifications of his victory, including his turn to independent, “I’m guessing by the audible gasps, many did not, if not all.”

In brief remarks Tuesday, Rozzi said on the state House floor that he would be independent and not caucus with either party while staffing his office with members of both parties. But members of the two parties have different visions for how it will play out.

On the GOP side, Cutler said he’s confident Rozzi will re-register as an independent, and Gregory said Republicans would maintain control of the floor schedule. State Democrats, however, list Rozzi as a Democratic speaker on their official website.

"I'm not sure he really announced himself as an independent," Bizzarro said, claiming that Rozzi told them he would remain a Democrat. 

"I think … what he was saying is that he will be a truly independent, an independent thinker, and he has pledged not to caucus with either of us," Bizzarro continued, adding, "And it does not appear that Republicans are going to be controlling much of anything."

The Pennsylvania stunner had some similarities with a speaker election in neighboring Ohio, where Democrats helped elect a more moderate Republican who was not as staunchly conservative as the candidate backed by most of the party.

"I think that the vast majority of elected representatives want to get to work," Cutler said. "They want to work on behalf of their constituents, and they want to find solutions. And so if that's a pattern for how they should do the job, I think it’s a good one."

The strategy looks unlikely to replicate itself in Washington, though, where McCarthy failed on a 13th vote Friday, though he was able to convert a number of Republican holdouts to his camp after days of negotiations. House Republicans told NBC News they are not looking to work with Democrats to elect a more center-right speaker to govern their new majority.

Gregory said the Pennsylvania election was "not really apples to apples" with the ongoing battle for control of the U.S. House.

"This scenario was so unique that I don’t see how it could possibly play out in that world that they’re living in right now," Gregory said. "This was such a unique relationship that presented itself."

Bizzarro held out hope that leaders in Washington would end the week by electing "a true moderate voice" who can bring "a consensus to the chamber."

"For leader McCarthy to keep coming back and coming back and coming back, I think it’s a little embarrassing for him," he said. "I mean, he is getting humiliated publicly in front of the nation."