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Protestors Take State Capital in Wisconsin

Wisconsin Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller says, "This is a disaster."

ByABC News
February 18, 2011, 8:00 AM

Feb. 18, 2011 — -- Crowds protesting proposed budget-cutting moves that threaten the bargaining rights of many Wisconsin state employees grew to nearly 40,000 today, helping paralyze Madison, the state capital, for yet another day.

Despite the protests, and an exodus of Democratic state senators that has prevented a vote on a controversial Republican proposal, Republican Gov. Scott Walker remains committed to a plan to curb the state's unions and force them to contribute more for benefits and believes it will pass the legislature.

Walker told reporters Friday that he would not "allow protesters to drown out the voice of the taxpayers," adding that he had received 19,000 supportive e-mails this week and that a "quiet majority" of the state's residents are behind his plan.

Madison, Wis., has become a magnet in the national and emotional debate over budget priorities, drawing figures including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the head of the national AFL-CIO.

IN PHOTOS: Wisconsin Protests

Even President Obama has injected himself into the growing fracas.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions," Obama told Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV in an interview Wednesday at the White House.

Key Democrats still are missing in action, holed up at a hotel across the border in Illinois after fleeing a vote in the Wisconsin Senate on Thursday. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the state Senate 19-14, but 20 state senators need to be present to hold a vote.

"This might be the only option we really have to try to say to the governor, 'Let's slow this down, you're ramming this through,'" said state Sen. Dave Hansen.

"The idea is to sit down and negotiate," said state Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, one of the Democrats who left the state. "We've heard over 1,000 people testify about the impact this is going to have on their lives. It's heartbreaking. People break down in tears. This is a disaster and we're being asked to swallow it in just four days."

CLICK HERE for more of George Stephanopoulos' interview with Sen. Mark Miller.

On Thursday night, more public workers, including firefighters, poured into the capital. Some families camped out overnight in a last-ditch effort to protest the moves they feared would cripple their union rights.

"I want to do anything in my power to raise awareness that this can't happen," said one protestor.

"We've taken less pay for the benefits, so now simply to cut our benefits is just totally unfair," said a retired teacher, Jim Thompson.

On Thursday, Republicans were poised to pass an austerity budget requiring state workers to pay more for pensions and health care.

But what really has protestors steamed is a dramatic move by the Republican governor to eliminate union bargaining on everything from wages to work rules.

"He's trying to dictate what we'll do, how we'll do it, when it'll be done," said Deborah Caldwell, a teacher.

"It's about stripping away our rights to have a union," said a local union steward identified as Aniel.