Feb. 25, 2011 -- Wisconsin Assembly members early this morning approved a bill that would take away the majority of state workers' collective bargaining rights.
Closure on the controversial bill is far from over, however, as it now heads to the state Senate where 14 Democratic lawmakers have been absent for a week.
Earlier, Gov. Scott Walker backed away from a self-imposed deadline of today for approving his controversial "budget repair bill" as the legislature remained embroiled in gridlock and the 14 Senate Democrats stayed in hiding.
Walker would not say how long he will wait for the bill to pass. The legislation would balance the state's budget, repeal most union collective bargaining agreements for public workers and give his administration power to change the state's health program.
But he said failure to move the bill forward could result in state aid to local governments being cut by nearly $1 billion, and teacher layoffs.
"Year after year, politicians passed the buck and that's precisely why we are in trouble today and its got to stop," the Republican governor said. "It's not just about protecting the taxpayers, but it's also about protecting the workers."
But neither Republicans nor Democrats were willing to blink first in the week-long debate that has resulted in 14 lawmakers in the Wisconsin Senate fleeing their state, and brought tens of thousands of protestors inside the Wisconsin capitol building.
Earlier, it was believed that Assembly Democrats and Republicans had reached a deal to speed up the vote by limiting the minority to 38 amendments given under a strict 10 minute time frame.
But drums and faint chants of "this is what democracy looks like" continued to pierce through the thick wooden doors of the Assembly as Democrats charged repeatedly that Republicans were giving them a similar ultimatum as the unions.
"The same deal that was given to us was given to workers, take it or leave it," said Rep. Joe Parisi (D- Madison).
The Republican leadership says they have been lax on time limits during the marathon session.
Assembly speaker Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) said "time is running out before the lack of a vote forces pink slips to start going out."
If that happens it may hit close to home. Fitzgerald's brother Scott is Senate Majority Leader and his wife, who works as a counselor in a local school district received a preliminary layoff notice.
Protesters followed and applauded the Assembly Democratic Minority leadership as a small group tried to meet with Gov. Scott Walker in his office and offer a compromise to the week-long impasse. Walker was a no show.
The Democrats proposed to keep collective bargaining rights for public workers. Gov. Walker later said he had reviewed the proposal and that it was more of the same.
The Republican leadership in the Assembly called the move a stunt.
Before Thursday, Democrats had threatened to propose hundreds of changes to the controversial bill that has garnered national attention and brought union supporters from across the nation in support of their Wisconsin colleagues.
Minority leader Peter Barca said he decided to limit discussion only after Democrats were given an ultimatum to either limit the number of amendments or that the process was going to be shut down.
"The majority party is not allowing us to speak. We were told we will go nuclear and stop your ability to speak. If that happened, this would be a very disruptive room. We still have a lot to talk about in this very bad 144 page bill," said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison).
The debate continues as protestors, who have remained peaceful, outside the halls set up food stands, massage stations, and other creature comforts as they dig in.
Outside the capitol building, state troopers on the behest of Governor Walker, fanned out unsuccessfully to find at least one of the 14 missing Wisconsin Senate democrats who have been on the run for more than a week. Their absence has ground debate in the Wisconsin Senate to a halt, and made it impossible for the bill to be passed into law.
Troopers knocked on the doors of several lawmakers homes who have left the state, in a response to rumors that some of them were sneaking back across the border to pick up essentials. The gang of 14 said they would not return until Gov. Walker was willing to compromise on the collective bargaining proposals.
By compromise, Democrats mean strip it from the proposal. The Governor and Republican leadership contend if that's done the savings promised under the bill will vanish.
In an editorial entitled "Democracy Requires Participation" sent out late Thursday, Governor Walker complimented the Democratic Assembly lawmakers for at least debating the bill. He blasted the Senate lawmakers who fled the state and said, "I laid out to make the tough decisions needed to balance Wisconsin's budget."
Walker says the budget repair bill will allow the state to save $300 million this year and $1.44 billion in the next state budget. Democrats say the $3.6 billion deficit for the next budget which begins in July is in large measure a result of the "Great Recession" and such plans to restrict union bargaining power is unnecessary especially when they have already agreed to a pay cut.
Even if the Assembly gets through all of the amendments later this evening as expected, Assembly Democrats will have unlimited time to debate the actual bill. They have given no indication about how long they may debate that.
Passage of the bill in the Assembly would be a major victory for Republicans.