Opponents of Gov. Scott Walker's budget protest in front of the offices… (Andy Manis, Associated…)
Reporting from Madison, Wis., and Indianapolis — The Wisconsin Assembly early Friday approved a measure to strip most government workers of collective-bargaining rights, but the measure's fate remains in limbo with Democrats still out of state to prevent a vote in the state Senate.
Shortly after 1 a.m., Assembly Republicans, who control the lower chamber, abruptly cut off debate after 60 solid hours of discussion and approved the bill, 51-17. The tally was taken so quickly that most Democrats didn't have a chance to vote.
Democratic legislators screamed at Republicans as the majority party silently filed out of the chamber under police protection and left the Capitol, where demonstrators were staying overnight for the second week to register their objection to the bill.
Gov. Scott Walker has warned that if his budget bill does not pass by Friday, he will have to lay off 1,500 workers because the state will miss a deadline to save $165 million by refinancing its debt. State troopers were dispatched Thursday morning to the homes of some of the 14 Senate Democrats in hopes of persuading at least one to return to the Capitol, but none were found.
The senators fled a week ago to deny the Republican-controlled chamber a quorum and prevent it from passing Walker's bill. Democrats in the Assembly don't have the numbers to use a similar tactic, so they have instead offered a blizzard of amendments during a three-day, nonstop floor debate.
Later Friday morning, Senate Republicans tightened the screws on the minority party as well, quickly moving the collective-bargaining proposal to a stage where it can no longer be amended and must be subject of an up-or-down vote when Democrats return.
"I'm not allowing them to come back and go on ad nauseam after they checked out on the process two weeks ago," Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, told reporters.
Layoff notices began trickling out Thursday as local agencies warned of possible cuts. Among those receiving a notice was the wife of the Senate majority leader, who is a counselor in the tiny Hustisford School District.
Walker has said there would be no need for layoffs if government workers agreed to end collective bargaining and pay 12% of their health costs and half of their pension costs. Unions have agreed to the pay concessions but say the attempt to eradicate collective bargaining is simply union-busting.
At a news conference Thursday evening, Walker said he wanted to remove collective bargaining to give local governments the flexibility to avoid layoffs.
"One of the toughest decisions I ever made was laying people off," said Walker, the former chief executive of Milwaukee County. "We need to avoid layoffs for the good of the workers, for the good of the people."
In Indiana, all but three of the 40 Democratic state House members remained missing in action, leaving the body without a quorum for a third day. The Democrats fled to a hotel in Urbana, Ill., to stop votes on the state budget and a slate of labor and education bills, including a "right to work" measure that would have banned all workplaces from requiring union membership or dues.
That bill died when it missed a procedural deadline Tuesday, and Republican leaders have said they will not attempt to revive it this session. But Democrats pointed out that other bills carry similar anti-union measures, including one that would ban secret ballots when workers vote to unionize and another that would ban collective bargaining for public-sector workers.
House Democratic leader Pat Bauer called the slate of Republican-sponsored bills an "assault on the middle class." Bauer said Thursday that it would be a "pretty good assumption" that Democrats would not be back Monday when the House reconvenes.
Friday is the deadline to move the bills from the House to the Senate, but Republicans introduced a measure that would extend the deadline by a week. Even that measure is on hold, however, unless enough Democrats return to provide a quorum of 67. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said he had spoken to several Democrats and was hoping a handful would defect.
"Just because someone disagrees with the view of the majority doesn't mean they should take someone else's ball and go home," he said.