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Wisconsin Assembly set to vote on budget bill that weakens unions

With Wisconsin's senators still in hiding, the rest of the state's lawmakers continue to wrangle over a budget bill that would mean big changes for most public employees. Who'll blink first?

By Staff writer / February 24, 2011

Wisconsin Democratic Reps. Peter Barca and Donna Seidel walk to the governor's office at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are in their tenth day of protests.

Andy Manis/AP

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Even with the absence of their Democratic counterparts, Wisconsin Senate Republicans pressed forward with the budget repair bill proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and intended to plug a $3.6 billion budget gap over the next two years. But critics say it’s nothing more than union-busting.

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The floor debate started Tuesday and continued through Thursday, making it possible the state Assembly may vote late Thursday.

While some 70,000 advocates on both sides swarmed the Capitol in Madison over the past week, debate over the bill reached a historic milestone. At noon Thursday, discussions passed the 48-hour mark, making it the longest continuous legislative debate in the state in living memory.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests

There is no end in sight.

The 14 Senate Democrats remain in Illinois, where they say they will stay to prevent a quorum, which the 19 Senate Republicans need to bring the bill to the floor for a vote.

Assembly Democrats, meanwhile, are fighting the bill on the floor by debating each amendment, which they hope will prolong the public debate going on outside the state Capitol building and online.

JR Ross, editor of Wisconsin Politics, an online media outlet that covers state news in Madison, describes events so far as “high-stakes poker” for political leaders on both sides of the aisle.

“At this point no one has an end game,” Mr. Ross says. “Everybody has painted themselves into a corner. If the governor blinks, he’s weakened politically going forward. If the Democrats hiding come back and see the bill pass, they’ll have let down thousands of people and become irrelevant for the rest of the session.”

Wisconsin Republican leaders decry the Democrats’ actions.

Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Thursday the Senate Democrats “are trying to shut down state government.”

On Thursday morning, he dispatched state troopers to the homes of the AWOL senators, responding to reports that they were sneaking back to Wisconsin at night for a change of clothes and to visit their families – which Democrats, some staying in Chicago, denied.

With Democrats saying they have no intention of returning until Governor Walker shows signs of compromise, Republicans are fast-tracking measures that critics say are designed to lure Democrats back into the state.

Senate Republicans approved a bill Thursday requiring voters to show photo identification to vote. Because the bill calls for $2 million in state dollars to educate voters and poll workers, it cannot pass without a quorum. State Democrats have long opposed the issue, but because they know the bill will pass even with their presence, they are not likely to return for the debate.

Even with the governor tight-lipped about compromise, there are signs that Senate Republicans may be more willing.

Earlier this week, Sen. Dale Schultz introduced a “sunset” measure into the budget repair bill that would extend the limits on collective bargaining for just two years.

Besides forcing non-law-enforcement workers to pay more for their pension and health benefits, Walker’s bill removes collective bargaining power on everything but wages, and it forces workers to vote every 12 months to certify their union’s existence.

Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Kent College of Law in Chicago, calls the measures “unprecedented.”

He suspects that the compromise measure is timed to coincide with the presidential election in 2012, calling it an attempt “to gut a major source of manpower and financial support for President Obama’s presidential campaign and to deliver a major swing state to the Republican candidate.”

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests

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