After an exhausting three-week stalemate, Wisconsin Republicans maneuvered late Wednesday to curb collective bargaining for public-sector workers, passing an amended budget-repair bill by an 18–1 vote in the state senate. The surprise legislative gambit stunned labor activists, who have flocked to Madison in recent weeks, and stymied the 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois on February 17 in protest of Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal.
“The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused,” Walker said following the vote, which occurred on short notice in the early evening. He hailed the effort as a necessary step toward closing the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit.
Until Wednesday, the Democrats’ absence had denied Republicans a quorum on Walker’s plan, which also includes reforms of pension and health-care contributions for state workers. But after negotiations between senate leaders stalled, Walker, according to sources, urged senate Republicans to move forward Wednesday during a closed-door meeting. With little debate, Republicans agreed to repackage the bill into a non-appropriation measure, setting off a series of legislative procedures that pushed the revamped bill to the floor within hours.
State senator Alberta Darling, the Republican chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, tells National Review Online that she and her colleagues held their ground even as the roars under the rotunda grew louder by the hour. “Governor Walker told us that he had tried to negotiate, but Democrats refused. We had to get the job done.” By moving the collective-bargaining section of his budget bill “off of the table,” Darling says, Walker hoped to bring the Democrats home, as soon as possible, to address other pressing fiscal matters.
With his colleagues’ backing, senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, brought the bill into conference committee, where legislators pruned the plan’s fiscal elements during the late afternoon. Republicans kept the collective-bargaining provision as the bill’s keystone, but gutted language related to debt refinancing, for instance, therefore bypassing the state constitution’s quorum requirements for fiscal legislation.
In a bit of political theater, Rep. Peter Barca, the Democratic leader in the assembly, shouted at Fitzgerald as he initiated the mark-up, calling it a violation of the state’s open-meetings law. But the bill, to Barca’s vocal dismay, was stamped with the committee’s approval and hustled to the chamber. What remained, though similar to Walker’s original outline, required a simple majority. It easily passed at around 6 p.m., with one only one member of the 19-strong GOP caucus, moderate senator Dale Schultz, objecting.
Mayhem engulfed the state capitol following the vote. Thousands of protesters streamed into the four wings of the historic white-granite building, screaming at the GOP lawmakers, who were quickly escorted out by police. College students from the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus mingled with union leaders, teachers raised fists with progressive organizers. Cries of “Shame!” echoed throughout the marble halls.