MADISON, Wis. (AP) - At least two dozen protesters spent the
night just outside the Wisconsin state Assembly chamber in
anticipation of a late Thursday morning vote on explosive union
rights legislation that passed the Senate after Republicans
outmaneuvered their missing Democratic counterparts and pushed
through the bill.
The extraordinary turn of events late Wednesday set up
Thursday's perfunctory vote on the measure that would strip nearly
all collective bargaining rights from most public workers. Once the
bill passes the Assembly, it heads to Republican Gov. Scott Walker
for his signature.
Within hours of the Senate passing the bill, a crowd of hundreds
of protesters grew to about 7,000 in the Capitol, a crowd as large
as any seen inside the building in three weeks of demonstrations.
"The whole world is watching!" protesters shouted as they
pressed up against the heavily guarded entrance to the Senate
Most protesters left by midnight - many were expected back
Thursday for a rally preceding the Assembly vote - but dozens of
others spent the night in the Capitol corridors, some sleeping on
the marble floor with no padding. State officials said no attempts
would be made to force them to leave.
The bill had been stymied after all 14 Senate Democrats fled to
Illinois three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough
members present to pass it. Walker introduced it to plug a $137
million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum of 20 to take up any measures that
spend money. But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate
and Assembly voted late Wednesday afternoon to take all the
spending measures out of the legislation and the Senate approved it
minutes later, 18-1.
Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the lone no vote.
"I voted my conscience which I feel reflects the core beliefs
of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them,"
Schultz said in a statement.
Before Wednesday's vote, it appeared the standoff would persist
until Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile.
But in a matter of minutes, it was over.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil
rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin
and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," said
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. "Tonight, 18 Senate
Republicans conspired to take government away from the people."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Miller said there is
nothing Democrats can do now to stop the bill: "It's a done
Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen said the Senate vote took him
"We didn't believe that the Republican senators would stay with
the governor and rubber-stamp his plan," Hansen told CBS' "Early
Show" on Thursday.
The Democrats may put renewed energy into efforts under way to
recall eight of the Republican state senators. Six Democratic
senators are also the target of recall efforts.
Senate Democrats met late Wednesday night to discuss when they
might return. They said they would not be back on Thursday, but
gave no indication when they might come home.
"We are going to watch and see how the Assembly unfolds," said
Sen. Spencer Coggs. "There will be fireworks. There will be a lot
of people at the Capitol and so it will be hard to get in and out
of the Capitol."
Walker had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a
budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local
governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to
close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said that without
the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and
make other cuts to balance the budget.
Walker said Wednesday night that Democrats had three weeks to
debate the bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come
back, but refused.
"I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the
status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the
budget and reform government," Walker said in the statement.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively
bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless
approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to pay more
toward their pensions and double their health insurance
contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for
the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
Walker's proposal touched off a national debate over union
rights for public employees and prompted tens of thousands of
demonstrators to converge on Wisconsin's capital city for weeks of
Wednesday's drama unfolded less than four hours after Walker met
with GOP senators in a closed-door meeting. He emerged from the
meeting saying senators were "firm" in their support of the bill.
For weeks, Democrats had offered concessions on issues other
than the bargaining rights and they spent much of Wednesday again
calling on Walker and Republicans to compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said earlier that
Republicans had been discussing concessions offered by Walker,
including allowing public workers to bargain over their salaries
without a wage limit. Several GOP senators facing recall efforts
had also publicly called for a compromise.
"The people of Wisconsin elected us to come to Madison and do a
job," Fitzgerald said in a statement after the vote. "Just
because the Senate Democrats won't do theirs, doesn't mean we won't
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, the lone Democrat present
on the special committee that put the bill in position to pass the
Senate, shouted that the meeting was a violation of the state's
open meetings law.
"The jig is now up," Barca said. "The fraud on the people of
Wisconsin is now clear."
The Senate's chief clerk said hours later the meeting was
properly held. Fitzgerald said he cleared the Senate's action with
the Legislature's attorneys, the nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau and bill
Union leaders weren't happy with Walker's previous offer of
concessions, and were furious at the Senate's move to push the
measure forward with a quick vote. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of
the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said after Wednesday's vote that
Republicans exercised a "nuclear option."
"Scott Walker and the Republicans' ideological war on the
middle class and working families is now indisputable," Neuenfeldt
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond and Jason Smathers in
Madison, and Robert Ray in Chicago contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)