Democratic Pa. Assembly Elects GOP Speaker

The closely divided Pennsylvania General Assembly made history earlier this month when the Democratic majority elected a Republican speaker. Can bipartisanship flourish in the Pennsylvania legislature?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up: Mike Pesca's fond farewell to NPR's New York Bureau.

CHADWICK: But first, all this week on DAY TO DAY and other NPR programs we've been bringing you the series Crossing the Divide. The stories here have looked at the pros and cons of bipartisanship and compromise. For today's installment of Crossing the Divide, we're joined by NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams, a regular Friday guest on DAY TO DAY.

Juan, welcome back.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: You've got this story that is both personal and political, and it comes from the Pennsylvania General Assembly - that's the state legislature there - about this unusual political development there. Go ahead and give us the background for these circumstances, would you?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's so intriguing. After the fall election, '06, the House was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans - 102 Democrats, 101 Republicans, right? So after several Democrats started to raise red flags about what was going on within their own party and threatened defection, then the majority leader of the House, a Democrat by the name of Bill DeWeese, realized that he probably didn't have quite enough votes to become the speaker. He couldn't count on all 102 Democrats voting for him.

So DeWeese recruited a Republican to run for speaker, a man named Dennis O'Brien. And I spoke with O'Brien earlier this week.

Mr. DENNIS O'BRIEN (Pennsylvania General Assembly): The condition was that I would have to switch parties. I couldn't do that, and the eventual discussion led to my remaining as a Republican and being elected by a Democrat majority.

WILLIAMS: So you have this Dennis O'Brien, a Philadelphia Republican, and now he's the speaker of the Democratic Pennsylvania House. And I spoke with Bill DeWeese, the Democrat and former Marine. He's a man who engineered the deal and DeWeese told me how he responded after O'Brien refused to switch parties and become a Democrat.

Mr. BILL DEWEESE (Pennsylvania General Assembly): With some very exciting boot camp vocabulary I exclaimed to him that, okay then, you so and so, I'm going to nominate you as a Republican, which preserved our majority. And it's a real unusual situation. I don't think it's been experimented with in modern Pennsylvanian history.

CHADWICK: You know, I'm not sure I've ever heard of this in any state legislature. So how is it going to work out, this kind of experiment in compromise and bipartisanship?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, there have been things like it in Indiana in the mid-'90's. They had a 50-50 split, Alex, and the rule was set up that the speaker's slot should go to the party of the governor. And so what you had was a Democrat in charge of what was a split party, a split House, I should say. And in California in the '90s they had a similar thing. And of course Governor Schwarzenegger says that he's trying to do much of that in California these days.

But you're right. It's a very unusual situation. And I think right now, you know, you get Democratic leaders who supported O'Brien's run as a Republican and he's got the job. And ultimately, what it came down to was a vote. And the vote was 105 to 97; six Republicans came over to join with the Democrats. And by the way, you can tell by the vote tally, some Democrats went the other way. So it's an interesting mix. But what they've got is a ruling majority in which most of those involved are Democrats and you've got this Republican speaker who has a small following among his fellow Republicans.

CHADWICK: So why do you think Mr. O'Brien took this job, the Republican? Why did he agree to this deal?

WILLIAMS: Well, Dennis O'Brien laid out his political philosophy for me and I want you to hear it. He says you have throw political labels out the door.

Mr. O'BRIEN: I think what you have to do, and what policy makers have to look at, is take the issues that they're elected to represent their people on, and do their best to articulate and represent those. And we have to respect that there's going to be differences. But at the end, we have to recognize that you can't have everything all the time. And you have to understand what the needs are in everybody's district. And hopefully at the end of the day we have a fair and equal distribution of our resources.

CHADWICK: It sounds like the NPR series Crossing the Divide is very well timed for the state of Pennsylvania, and that's maybe where we can just see it all play out there.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right. We can watch and see if there's any reality. Because here you have a situation where you have a Republican speaker of the House, says he's interested in children's issues, victims rights issues and the like. That's an agenda that any Democrat could embrace. He's from Philadelphia. He's from an urban area. We'll see exactly how many Democrats can hold with him, and in fact that he's able to draw in some more Republicans, and whether or not he can create a working relationship with a very partisan Democratic governor, Ed Rendell.

CHADWICK: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams; Crossing the Divide in Pennsylvania. Juan, thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

BRAND: And Juan will return to talk with us on Monday, fresh from interviewing President Bush. It's the president's first interview since delivering his State of the Union address and his first interview with NPR.

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