At the start of the tenth day of protests, opponents of the governor's… (Andy Manis / Associated…)
Reporting from Madison, Wis., and Los Angeles — The Wisconsin Assembly braced on Thursday for a vote on the bill that would limit collective bargaining for most public employees, while state police searched for Senate Democrats who remained out of state.
Even as demonstrators continued to chant and sing their protests against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to curb collective bargaining for most state workers, excluding police and fire personnel, lawmakers prepared to move the bill along. Though the measure is expected to easily pass the Republican-controlled Assembly, it also needs Senate approval.
In television interviews from Illinois, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said all 14 senators who have fled Wisconsin would not return until some form of compromise is negotiated with Walker. The Republican governor has repeatedly ruled out any talks.
The Midwest has been rocked by battles over union rights as newly elected Republican governors and legislatures have turned up the heat on the issue and unionists have responded with rallies and protests. Driving the debate are budget shortfalls, as many states seek to cut the costs of healthcare benefits and pensions. Democratic lawmakers from Indiana have also fled to slow down anti-union legislation there.
In Wisconsin, Walker has proposed increasing the amount employees pay for healthcare and pension contributions as a way of closing a $137-million budget shortfall by June 30. He has defended the provision that would limits on collective bargaining, arguing that the union contracts have forced costs up beyond taxpayers' ability to pay.
Protests by tens of thousands of people a day are in their second week. Hundreds of demonstrators have been sleeping in the Capitol overnight and were the first to hear of the deal that is expected to bring the main bill to the Assembly floor for a vote later today.
Early Thursday, lawmakers announced that 38 amendments will be brought to the floor for debate of 10 minutes each, ending a filibuster in the Assembly. Passage is likely but the bigger question is what will happen in the Senate, where Republicans have a majority but need at least one Democrat to make a quorum.
Wisconsin State Patrol officers were sent to "some, not all" of the homes of the 14 missing Democratic Senators on Thursday morning, said Andrew Welhouse, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald has said the Democrats would not be arrested if they were found, but the troopers were sent to deliver a message that they are encouraged to "come back to the Capitol and do their job," Welhouse said.
None of the missing Democrats were contacted by the Patrol by mid-morning.
Meanwhile, GOP senators met briefly without the Democrats, passing yet another sports-related symbolic measure and holding up a vote on a potentially controversial voter-identification bill.
Republican senators chose not to vote on a bill requiring voters to present photo identification because the bill has budgetary elements, which means the bill would require a 20th senator for a quorum. Nineteen Republican Senators were left behind when the 14 Democratic senators fled.
Fitzgerald blamed Democrats for "tearing apart the Senate rule book."
"Where is the minority party?" he asked rhetorically.
In the absence of the Democrats, the Senate declared a day to honor actor, author and longtime Milwaukee Brewers radio announcer Bob Uecker. This week, senators have honored Uecker as well as the University of Wisconsin and Green Bay Packers football teams.
In Indiana, it appeared that a boycott by Democrats had successfully killed a Republican bill that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment. But Democratic lawmakers remained encamped in Illinois, protesting other parts of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' agenda, including a proposal to limit collective bargain on some issues for teachers.
All but three Indiana House Democrats remained in Urbana, Ill., Thursday. Democrats said they have no plans to return by the end of the week.
The House adjourned Thursday morning until Monday, when Republican Speaker Brian Bosma said he hopes the missing legislators will return.
The crowd of union protesters in the Capitol building appeared somewhat smaller and more sedate Thursday, but a substantial crowd remained, chanting and singing, into the afternoon.
House Democratic leader Pat Bauer said during a telephone news conference that it would be a "pretty good assumption" that Democrats will not be back Monday. Bauer continued to refer to the Republican-sponsored bills as "class war" and an "assault on the middle class."
In Ohio, Republicans scaled back their anti-union proposal to allow collective bargaining but only on some issues. The bill is in committee.
Hinkel, a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, reported from Madison; Muskal, a staff writer for The Times, reported from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Abby Sewell contributed from Indianapolis, Ind.