In a last-ditch effort to stop the passage of Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget repair bill by depriving the Senate of a quorum, all 14 Senate Democrats staged a walkout Thursday, leaving the state to avoid a forced return to the Capitol and a doomed vote against the bill.
The missing legislators traveled across the state line, spending at least part of the day at the Clock Tower Resort in Rockford, Ill. - far enough away that state troopers could not force them to return. They then spent the afternoon in a cat-and-mouse game with members of the media, sometimes speaking by cell phone but not revealing their locations.
The move stalled the vote, and the Senate adjourned Thursday without taking up the matter. Senators, however, are expected to come back into session today for another run at passage.
If Republicans can get at least one of the Democratic senators back into the chamber, they can force a vote that almost certainly would end with passage of Walker's bill, which would strip most collective bargaining rights for nearly all public workers in Wisconsin.
The GOP holds a 19-14 edge in the Senate and a 57-38-1 edge in the Assembly, and Republican leaders say they have the votes to pass the measure.
"Yes, this is a very extreme measure, but after what Walker did, it was our only option," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who spoke with a State Journal reporter late Thursday in the lobby of a Chicago hotel where he was planning to spend the night.
Erpenbach called the situation "a little bizarre" and said he'd rather be home in his bed. But he said he's confident he's doing the right thing for his constituents.
"I can tell you I'm clearly representing the majority of my district, based on the contacts I've had with people," he said.
Erpenbach said he didn't know how long he and the 13 other Democrats would hold out, saying a lot is up to Walker. "It's not like we wanted to do this, but we needed to slow this down," he said.
Erpenbach said he was traveling alone and didn't know the precise locations of the others.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona, said the senators will return when the governor ends his bid to curb collective bargaining powers for state and local employees and sits down with union leaders.
"We just hope cooler heads prevail," he said.
But Thursday, Walker seemed firm in his resolve to push through his bill. He said the state is broke and has nothing with which to negotiate. And he called on the senators to return to Madison.
"Their actions, by leaving the state and hiding from voting, are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent," he said.
Eyes on Wisconsin
Thursday marked the fourth day of protests at the Capitol. More than 35,000 union supporters flooded the statehouse the past three days and about 25,000 more showed up Thursday. They packed three floors of the rotunda and surrounded the Senate.
Most protesters came to fight Walker's bid to remove bargaining rights for most of the 175,000 state and local employees, allowing workers to negotiate only over salary. The governor's bill exempts most law enforcement, firefighters and State Patrol troopers from the change.
The protests have garnered national attention. Wisconsin was featured this week on nightly cable shows, including MSNBC's "The Ed Schultz Show." The liberal firebrand filmed in Madison on Thursday to show support for union workers.
Officials in other states also are keeping a close eye on the situation, mainly because they're attempting similar legislative measures in their states. Leaders in Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee and Michigan are considering limits to public employee pensions and benefits.
Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said he thinks Walker is trying to set a precedent for other conservative governors around the country who hope to strip away workers' rights in their states.
"This is a guy who's trying to change 50 years of history in five days," Tate said. "He won't even sit down at the table with workers."
Stalling for time
The governor's proposal, unveiled Feb. 11 as part of a bill aimed at overcoming a $137 million deficit in the current budget, was expected to pass Thursday.
It is not clear what will happen going forward. Walker said Thursday he expected the senators to spend a couple of days on their "stunt" and then return to the Capitol to do their job.
Wisconsin Democrats are not the first group of legislators to flee their state to stall a vote. In 2003, the Texas House was brought to a standstill for four days when about 50 Democratic representatives left the state to block a Republican-drawn redistricting plan.
The drama here began at 11:30 a.m., when a roll call revealed none of the Senate Democrats were there. Soon after, Republican Senate President Mike Ellis announced a "call of the house" to send officers to force errant Democrats to return to the chamber.
Twenty senators are required to vote on fiscal bills, more than the Republican senators could muster alone.
Assembly Democrats joined the protest Thursday morning, entering the Assembly floor together wearing orange T-shirts reading "Assembly Democrats fighting for working families!" The lawmakers later broke for party meetings.
It's unclear when debate on the bill will actually begin. The Assembly, where the measure is expected to pass, may take up the bill first if the Senate Democrats don't return, according to a spokesman for Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon. Late Thursday night the Assembly recessed until 9 a.m. Friday, meaning they wouldn't act on the bill overnight.
"In the most powerful show of unity in decades, we have joined together to send a powerful message to Gov. Walker and the entire state of Wisconsin," Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement. "We support our teachers, nurses, snow-plow drivers, 911 operators, EMTs and all the working people that keep our great state functioning in both the public and private sectors."
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