Friday, February 18, 2011

Wisconsin Senate Fails to Vote on Anti-Union Bill

Wisconsin Senate Fails to Vote on Union Law

Wall Street Journal

MADISON, Wis.—The Wisconsin Senate failed to muster enough members to vote for a second day Friday, holding up legislation that would strip state workers of most collective-bargaining rights and prompting Republicans to criticize their absent Democratic colleagues.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a press conference after the brief session that he had asked state troopers to go to Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller's home because he understands he is there.

"I'm starting to hold Sen. Miller responsible for this," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

Mr. Miller later told CNN that he was out of state, not at his home in Wisconsin.

Mr. Fitzgerald said he didn't expect the troopers to arrest Mr. Miller if they found him at home but said he wanted the troopers to impress upon him "the seriousness of this situation."

"There are five and a half million people losing out," he said. "They've shut down government."

On Thursday, the 14 Senate Democrats fled the state to avoid a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair" bill, which would force most unionized state workers to pay more for health and pension benefits while limiting their collective-bargaining rights to wages.

Senate Democrats, who have said they want to negotiate a compromise bill before returning, said they wouldn't be coming back Friday.

"As far as I know, we're not coming back today," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach. He spoke by phone from a Chicago hotel where he had decided to spend Thursday night. He said he had rebooked the room for Friday night. Democrats planned to get together in northern Illinois sometime Friday afternoon to discuss their next steps, Mr. Erpenbach said. "When we go back is ultimately up to the governor's willingness to sit down and talk about this and come up with some sort of resolution."

Meanwhile, the Republican speaker of the state Assembly said he wanted to bring the measure to a vote Friday in his chamber.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca told protesters inside the Capitol that Democrats would fight the bill to the "bitter end."

He said people outside of Wisconsin need to know Republicans are trying to mislead them. "They are telling the public that this fight is about benefits when really its about workers' rights," he said.

As Mr. Barca walked through the statehouse in a bright-orange T-shirt that identifies him as a Democratic assemblymen, he was cheered, slapped on the back and given high-fives.

Protesters thanked himas he passed and held out their hands to touch him.

"I'm very proud people are fighting to protect the rights they've had for 50 years," he said. "We have a proud tradition in Wisconsin of collective bargaining and workplace safety, and we don't want to lose that."

Thousands of demonstrators have swarmed the state-capitol building and grounds in recent days to protest the measure. Schools have closed around the state as teachers have called in sick to attend the protest.

On Friday, state and national leaders began arriving in Madison to speak with protesters.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat who lost the governor's race to Mr. Walker in November, said to reporters upon arriving at the capitol: "Cooler heads have to prevail. We do have serious budget issues, but you don't deal with it by reversing 50 years of law."

In urging the Democratic senators to return, Mr. Fitzgerald called the statehouse a "powder keg." He didn't elaborate but referred to how difficult it is to move around.

He also said Democrats are going to be very hard to work with going forward.

"I don't think there's any doubt they're burning the bridge right now," he said. "They've pulled the plug on the process, it's outrageous."

Since he doesn't expect the troopers to arrest Mr. Miller or forcibly bring him back, he is hopeful that public pressure will force Democrats back to the capital.

"The public is more and more uncomfortable" with the senators hiding out, he said. "I'm hopeful the public will say you have to return and do your job."

The protests so far have been peaceful, if not orderly.

At 11 p.m. Thursday, the scene inside the capitol rotunda, where a group of mostly young demonstrators have been sleeping, was atypical: Under the soaring, arched ceiling painted with august-looking men and words like liberty and justice, a half-dozen young men, some barechested and others in T-shirts, took turns break dancing while a person in a gorilla suit cheered. A young woman stood on an upside-down gray garbage bin leading a chant through a megaphone, " Kill the Bill." She was accompanied by six people banging drums. Hundreds watched and clapped and danced.

Write to Douglas Belkin at and Kris Maher at

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