Wisconsin Democrats Face Few Legal, Political Consequences for Fleeing

State lawmakers' absence is like a U.S. Senate filibuster, experts say.

February 22, 2011, 12:22 PM

Feb. 22, 2011— -- Fourteen Wisconsin Democrats who have fled the state to prevent a quorum inside the state Senate face few legal and political consequences for their actions despite the unprecedented and extended nature of their absence.

The lawmakers have been hiding out in an undisclosed location in Illinois since Thursday, saying it was the only way to block Gov. Scott Walker and Republican state legislators from rapidly approving a bill that would curb rights of state employee unions and trim members' benefits.

Republicans, who accused their peers of breaking legislative rules, shirking responsibility and manipulating the democratic process, had initially dispatched the State Patrol to round them up and bring them back.

The Wisconsin Senate seeds 20 lawmakers present to hold a vote on the bill. But with only 19 Republican members, at least one of the 14 Democrats must also attend.

Now with the standoff showing no sign of abating -- and lawmakers in other states weigh whether to follow in the Wisconsin Democrats' footsteps -- experts say the absconding lawmakers' tactics are legal even if highly unusual.

"They're exercising both symbolic power here as well as the only leverage they've got, not unlike the U.S. Senate filibuster," said University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist Dennis Dresang.

The state constitution requires lawmakers to fulfill their duties to the best of their abilities and allows the legislature to "compel the attendance" of absent members to reach a quorum, though the documents do not spell out what types of compulsion can be used.

But the state constitution also prohibits lawmakers from being arrested during a legislative session, unless they're accused of "treason, felony or breach of the peace."

The "murkiness" of those two provisions, said one state Democratic aide, is why they fled, despite the knowledge that they couldn't be physically detained under the law. The jurisdiction of Wisconsin State Patrol ends at the state line.

"No one has ever been arrested for not attending the session," said Mike Browne, a spokesman for Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, who is hiding in an undisclosed location in Illinois. "But just what the troopers can do is questionable."

Experts say the troopers, who lack legal authority to take the lawmakers into custody, could have staked out or escorted the Democrats to the statehouse, adding pressure on their movements and creating an unflattering public spectacle.

Few Legal, Political Consequences

A spectacle may now be all but unavoidable, however, as the 14 Democrats' return across state lines remains closely anticipated.

Still, the potential political consequences of their excursion appear to be few.

"They're going to have to go back and do their job, and the minute they do that [the bill] is going to pass," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "The votes are there, it's just a matter of when it will take place. The governor is going to call their bluff."

Schier said ultimate passage of the Republicans' bill, stripping unions of their collective bargaining rights, could be wounding to the Democratic lawmakers in the short term but would likely not have a lasting impact on their careers since they have strong support in their Democratic districts.

"To some extent the Democrats have achieved hero status," said Dresang. "If they're able to get some kind of compromise, that status would be enhanced. But if not, then their return will be seen as delaying the inevitable."

In the meantime, the Democrats are continuing to urge Gov. Walker and Republicans, who resumed consideration of some legislative business today, to separate the non-fiscal provisions from the controversial budget bill and bring them up for an independent vote.

Browne said that "Republicans and Democrats have been communicating," acknowledging that the talks have taken place at member-to-member and staff levels. But both sides remain publicly defiant that they are not open to negotiating.

The last time state lawmakers fled the legislature to block a vote was in Texas in 2003 when 11 Democrats went to New Mexico to stall a GOP-sponsored redistricting plan.

They returned one month later, after one of the 11 Democrats defected, returning to Texas to give Republicans the quorum needed to advance the bill, which ultimately passed.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events