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CAPITOL RALLY
The crowd at the Capitol rally on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, is seen from an office building near the corner of King Street in Madison.

With a key committee vote out of the way, Republican leaders plan to soon pass a bill that would effectively strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers in Wisconsin, suggesting only modest changes to the proposal introduced by Gov. Scott Walker.

Key GOP lawmakers offered minor adjustments Wednesday night to the legislation, crafted during hours of closed-door meetings throughout the day, but those tweaks don’t affect Walker’s collective bargaining overhaul — a sweeping plan that brought thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for three consecutive days of demonstrations.

The Legislature’s powerful budget committee advanced the bill late Wednesday night on a party-line vote.

It likely will be taken up by the GOP-controlled Senate today, where Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, says it has the votes to pass. It then heads to the GOP-controlled Assembly.

GOP leaders, including Fitzgerald and committee co-chairs Rep. Robin Vos and Sen. Alberta Darling, said the proposed improvements would provide for a grievance procedure for public workers who lose bargaining rights, require committee approval of changes to the Medicaid program and limit the power of the Walker administration to circumvent current law and the Legislature’s approval to four years, and remove the bill’s provision dealing with full-time equivalent positions. It also would allow the committee to stop sales of state power plants.

It wouldn’t touch Walker’s controversial plan to strip bargaining rights for public workers, aside from police, firefighters and state troopers.

“You either have mass layoffs or you have a plan,” Fitzgerald said.

Walker and Republicans said they would not alter their plans despite the thousands of protesters who continue to flood the state Capitol. The crowd only got louder Wednesday as some pounded drums, others played bagpipes, and many chanted, “Kill the bill” and, “Recall Walker now!”

Some protesters never left. Hundreds came with sleeping bags or blankets and spent Tuesday night in the Capitol rotunda while hoping to speak at a hearing about the bill. Public testimony stretched from 10 a.m. on Tuesday to about 3 a.m. Wednesday and beyond, with Democratic lawmakers listening to people through the morning.

The protests in Wisconsin, a state with a long labor history, have drawn national attention, with network news stations picking up the story and President Barack Obama telling an interviewer Wednesday he was monitoring the situation.

The budget committee was expected to meet at noon Wednesday to vote on the plan after Tuesday’s marathon public hearing, but the session was delayed until after 7 p.m. There was a heavy police presence, access to some rooms was restricted and the crowd continued to grow into the night.

Walker told reporters Wednesday morning he will work with legislators on potential changes to the bill but does not want to undermine its main intent. He did not discuss specific changes, but said many of his other special session bills were amended by lawmakers before becoming law.

The governor added he expects the bill to pass.

“We want to make sure we’re listening to concerns that folks have raised at the hearings, that folks have raised to us and to lawmakers, to make sure that we’ve got a good, strong bill to go forward,” Walker said.

The governor has said the concessions he’s seeking are needed to help balance a $137 million deficit this fiscal year and a $3.6 billion budget hole over the next two years.

Democratic lawmakers remained unimpressed.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said he suspected the GOP changes were aimed at providing political cover for GOP legislators facing angry constituents. He accused Walker of creating a “manufactured crisis” to strip workers of their rights.

But Republican Sen. Dale  Schultz, R-Richland Center, said he was working on an alternative to the bill that still would strip public employees of their ability to collectively bargain on wages, pensions and health care costs, but only until 2013.

Those rights then would be restored.

Schultz said there are no easy solutions to dealing with the budget but put together his proposal in response to Walker’s call for people to bring forth suggestions.

“They are all painful,” he said of possible solutions.

Critics of the plan predicted protests will continue until Walker and Republicans back off making unilateral changes to collective bargaining.

“This indefinite mobilization will continue as people across Wisconsin try to stop this wrong-headed assault on workers,” said Scot Ross, executive director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now. “The opposition gets stronger every day.”

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