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Why neither side is blinking in Wisconsin's union-GOP budget showdown

Unionized civil service workers and Gov. Scott Walker remain miles apart over collective bargaining as Wisconsin budget showdown continues. What will it take to break the deadlock?

By Staff writer / February 22, 2011

A protester holds a sign on the rotunda floor, on day eight of protests against budget cuts proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, at the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on Feb. 22. The Wisconsin state Assembly on Tuesday opened debate on a Republican proposal to curb the power of public sector unions that has sparked mass demonstrations and a tense stand-off with Democrats.

Darren Hauck/Reuters

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) isn't budging on his vow to scale back collective bargaining to reduce the power of public employee unions and enable him to trim state spending. Thousands of pro-union protesters swarming the state Capitol in Madison are dug in just as hard.

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With the Wisconsin labor unrest now into its eighth day, compromise seems to be only a distant possibility.

The Democratic contingent of 14 state senators remains in hiding outside the state, thus preventing Senate action on the governor's bill, which Republicans have the votes to pass. Governor Walker, for his part, warned Tuesday that layoffs of state workers may begin next week if the Democrats don't return to the capital. He also sought to shore up public support for his "do not yield" position, announcing he would hold an F.D.R.-style "fireside chat" Tuesday evening – in front of an unlit fireplace at the Capitol.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin capitol protests

"The question right now is how deeply the two parties are embedded in their positions," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J.

That's not to say compromise has not been attempted. On Monday, GOP moderates offered a plan that would limit a collective bargaining ban to two years, to give the state time to climb out of its three-year, $3.74 billion budget deficit. Walker nixed that idea.

Unions have also conceded that, to help the state out of a financial predicament, they will have to take cuts in benefits – shouldering a greater share of their health and pension costs, as the governor has proposed. They stop short, though, of giving up their ability to bargain behind closed doors for health and pension benefits. Walker's plan would allow most public employee unions to negotiate only their pay via collective bargaining, and even there it would cap wage increases at the consumer price index.

Walker is one of a new crop of Republican governors in upper Midwestern states, including Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, who see in their election victories a mandate to slash government spending and end generous benefits to civil service employees. Walker has the votes in state Senate and Assembly to do it, so why should he compromise? his backers ask. In some quarters, even the term "compromise" is insidious amid voter demands to get government spending at both the state and national level under control.

"When you say the word ‘compromise’ … a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh-oh, they're gonna sell me out,' " US House Speaker John Boehner, who has backed Walker in Wisconsin, said recently about the national budget debate. "And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense."

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