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.
Senate Republicans were harried by swarming crowds. “We tried to get out of the building after the vote, because they were rushing the chamber, and we were escorted by security through a tunnel system to another building. But, after being tipped off by a Democrat, they mobbed the exit at that building, and were literally trying to break the windows of the cars we were in as we were driving away,” Republican senator Randy Hopper tells NRO. Such tactics, he sighs, were hardly unexpected. “I got a phone call yesterday saying that we should be executed. I’ve had messages saying that they want to beat me with a billy club.”
Senate Democrats are expected to return to Madison on Thursday to tangle with Republicans as the bill heads to the state assembly, where Republicans hold a solid majority. Rep. Michelle Litjens, a GOP state representative, predicts that she and her colleagues will complete final passage. “Wisconsin needs this to be over,” she says. “We tried to negotiate and the senators never came back. We just have to get this done.”
Still, the fight could last days, especially if Democrats mount an all-out effort to filibuster via debate in the lower chamber. Outside groups are pitching in: Eight Republican senators are facing recall campaigns, and hordes of union members with signs and colorful T-shirts continue to arrive in Madison. On Wednesday night, jolted by the vote, irate Democrats already had their fists raised. “In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin,” said Sen. Mark Miller, the Democratic leader, in an interview with the Associated Press. “Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.”
Despite his misgivings, Miller acknowledges that Walker’s bill is now set to become law. “It’s a done deal,” he said. Republican Darling, however, remains worried about how the drama will unfold in Madison — especially if the protesters continue to occupy, and nearly control, the state capitol. “It’s like we are in a foreign country or in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s,” she says. “I have had death threats. I have had my home protected by our local police. That’s not the America I know.”
For now, state Republicans are optimistic. As the jeers increase and the recalls pick up speed, they are determined to pass Walker’s bill. “Look, from Day One, the [unions] have been threatening physical violence and political recalls,” Hopper says. “But it’s more important for us to do our jobs than keep our jobs. This is not something that we are going to run our next political campaign on. This is something that we are going to tell our grandchildren about, that we fixed the state for them.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.