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Thursday's Senate walkout wasn't the first at the state Capitol

Thursday's Senate walkout wasn't the first at the state Capitol

  • Updated

Thursday was not the first time Wisconsin lawmakers have walked off the job to avoid a painful vote. But it was one of the most dramatic.

Fourteen Senate Democrats holed up in Rockford, Ill., to stall a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker that would strip 175,000 public-sector workers of most bargaining rights and open the door to large cuts in health care for the poor.

The walkout meant the 33-member Senate was unable to achieve a 20-member quorum needed to vote on fiscal matters.

The state Constitution gives the Senate the right to "compel the attendance of absent members in such manner and under such penalty as each house may provide." Once notified of the absence, the Senate rules say the Senate sergeant at arms "shall forthwith proceed to find and bring in such absentees."

But the rules are vague on the exact mechanism to be used to compel legislators' attendance, and no penalties are mentioned, said Laura Rose, deputy director of the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

UW-Milwaukee political science professor Mordecai Lee, who served in both the Senate and the Assembly, called it "uncharted territory."

"The rules weren't written with the expectation that someone would deliberately not comply and would place themselves outside of the jurisdiction of the state," Lee said.

The rules also call for lawmakers to remain locked in chamber until a quorum can be achieved. However, Senate Republicans adjourned around 5 p.m. at the call of the Senate President Mike Ellis. It's unclear whether that means the "call of the house" that compels the absent lawmakers to return to the Capitol has been lifted.

In 2003, 51 Democratic Texas lawmakers fled to Oklahoma to avoid voting on a redistricting plan that they said was being unfairly pushed by then-U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay got in ethical trouble for using the FAA to track down the missing lawmakers.

Past examples to force attendance for Capitol votes

Past efforts in Wisconsin to force lawmakers' attendance at votes are described in vivid detail in news reports and a 1960 summary by the Legislative Reference Library:

• In 1951, Rep. Ruth Doyle, mother of former Gov. Jim Doyle, refused to leave the "ladies' powder room," where she fled to avoid voting on a resolution asking Gen. Douglas MacArthur to address the state Legislature about the "appeasement of Communists in our own nation and the world." A Wisconsin State Journal report said Assembly Sergeant at Arms Norris Kellman entered the bathroom to bring Doyle back to the Assembly chamber, where she promptly voted against the measure.

• In 1918, The New York Times reported that Wisconsin senators remained locked in chamber after some lawmakers fled the Capitol to avoid voting on a "loyalty resolution" that was a veiled rebuke to U.S. Sen. Robert La Follette's anti-war stance.

• In 1903, a bill to establish primary elections forced lawmakers to remain locked in chambers for 40 hours until errant legislators could be brought back to the Assembly, "one of whom had been found hidden in the hay of his farm barn in a faraway county," the legislative report said, quoting a 1943 State Journal article.

• In 1893, Assembly members remained in the locked chamber for 72 hours after some walked out to avoid voting on a controversial proposal to pipe water from Waukesha County to the World's Fair in Chicago. The bill was defeated after the last absent lawmaker was retrieved.

— State Journal reporter Clay Barbour contributed to this report.

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