GOP Senators in Wisconsin Say They Will Resume Work


wisconsin-protestorsWith the Capitol braced for another week of protests and deadlock over a budget bill that would severely restrict public employees’ unions here, the top Republican in the State Senate announced that the body would resume consideration of other matters.The move seemed intended to increase the discomfort of the Democratic state senators who have fled the state as a way of preventing a vote on the union legislation. Starting Tuesday, those senators, who are in Illinois, will have to watch from afar as Republicans continue the work of governing without them, taking up matters from the mundane to the controversial.

“By not being here, they’re basically deciding to let things go through the body unchecked,” said Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader. “They’re not here to represent their constituents. We’re here to work.”

Gov. Scott Walker has said laying off state workers as early as next week is a possibility if the legislation curtailing the bargaining rights of unions is not approved soon.

On Tuesday in Ohio, protesters from across the state arrived in Columbus, as the state capital braced for the arrival of huge crowds of pro-union demonstrators. The legislature has planned new hearings on a bill that would effectively end collective bargaining for state workers and dramatically reduce bargaining power for local workers, like police officers and firefighters.

The bill, known as Senate Bill 5, was introduced on Feb. 8 by a Republican state senator, Shannon Jones, who said it was designed to give state and local governments more control over their finances during troubled economic times. It outraged unions who saw it as a direct attack on their workers, and as in Wisconsin, where a similar bill has drawn protestors, they came to the State Capitol to protest.

Ohio is facing an $8 billion budget deficit, about 11 percent of its budget, far less than states like California, Illinois and New Jersey, but still significant, and the state’s governor, John Kasich, a Republican, says drastic steps are required to plug the gap.

In Indiana, nearly all of the Democratic members of the state’s House of Representatives stayed away from a legislative session Tuesday morning, stalling several Republican-sponsored bills, including legislation that would allow workers in private sector unions the right to opt out of their unions and not pay dues.

Democrats said it was unlikely that they would return for a session scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Although Indiana Republicans control 60 of the House’s 100 seats, they lack a two-thirds majority for a quorum. Democrats say they are considering whether to flee the state, following the lead of Democrats in Wisconsin.

“We are still deliberating over issues of concern to members of our caucus, including the right to work and school vouchers,” said John Schorg, a spokesman for Democratic members of the House.

In Wisconsin, the issues scheduled for consideration in the Senate on Tuesday were routine: an appointment by the governor, tax breaks for dairy farmers and a resolution commending the Green Bay Packers for their Super Bowl victory. But Mr. Fitzgerald said more significant legislation could also be in play, including a bill requiring voter identification that Democrats strongly oppose.

Mr. Walker, in comments delivered against the din of the raucous protesters gathered outside his office, praised the Senate Republicans for the move, which he said he hoped would entice the Democrats home. “It’s time for them to come back and participate in democracy,” Mr. Walker said.

It was another strange twist in a standoff that has captured the nation’s attention but seems no closer to resolution than when it began. Each party maintained an unwillingness to compromise on the most divisive elements of the bill, with Democrats accusing the Republicans of refusing to negotiate and Republicans accusing Democrats of shirking their duties. Other states, including Ohio, are considering similar legislation, and both sides are hoping to use a victory in Wisconsin to establish momentum in their favor.

The plan proposed by Mr. Walker in Wisconsin has stirred the passions of many union workers; tens of thousands of protesters have flocked to the Capitol for days to contest his effort to limit collective bargaining. Dozens of rallies – promoted as “solidarity events” – have been scheduled around the country this week, including one in Las Vegas that drew several hundred protesters on Monday.

“We are supporting the people in Wisconsin and other people in this country that are out to stand against those who want to take away collective bargaining,” said Steve Harney, vice president and director of operations of Teamsters Local No. 14, at the gathering in the parking lot of the Grant Sawyer building in downtown Las Vegas.

The details of Governor Walker’s proposal include prohibiting collective bargaining for issues beyond wages, limiting pay raises to a certain level without approval by public referendum, exempting employees from paying union dues and requiring unions to hold annual votes on whether they should remain in existence.

Those elements have been strongly opposed by union leaders, though they have backed the immediate fiscal elements of the plan, which would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now, and increase the amount of health care premiums they pay to 12.6 percent, from about 6 percent now.

Compromise legislation being promoted by a moderate Republican that would put a two-year sunset clause on the collective-bargaining restrictions was rebuffed by both parties. Governor Walker said that part of the reason for the fiscal challenges was that previous governors and legislatures pushed fiscal problems down the road with short-term fixes.

The State Assembly is to begin debate on the budget bill on Tuesday morning. The debate was expected to take much of the day, if not longer, with Democrats warning that they may introduce numerous amendments. And there were many questions but few new insights about how the Senate impasse would end and what legislation the Republicans were prepared to pass in the meantime.

Barring an unexpected return by the Democrats, it seemed that the Republicans would have the run of the chamber and be able to introduce, debate and pass legislation without the minority party to stand in opposition.

At issue is a normally obscure Senate rule that requires a quorum of 20 senators to vote on fiscal matters but just 17 to vote on other matters. There are 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate.

However, shutting down speculation to the contrary, Mr. Fitzgerald pledged not to take any action on any part of the budget bill until the Democrats returned.

“They can vote on anything that is nonfiscal,” said Senator Jon Erpenbach, a Democrat, from his hotel across state lines. “They can take up their agenda; they can do whatever they choose to do.”

Mr. Erpenbach said that his caucus was determined not to return until the restrictions to collective bargaining were off the table. But he worried aloud about what legislation could emerge in the meantime.

{NY Times/}