Indiana Democrats' Wisconsin-style walkout ends after flurry of compromise

Compromises on several Republican-backed initiatives led the 39 Indiana Democrats to return home Monday, and the state's House met in session for the first time in five weeks.

AJ Mast/AP
Indiana Democrates in attendance while the House comes to order in Indianapolis, Monday. The Democrats' return to Indiana’s House ends their nearly six-week-old walkout.

Indiana’s House met in session for the first time in five weeks late Monday after compromises were reached on several Republican-backed and bitterly contested legislative initiatives, ending a walkout by 39 Democrats who had fled the state.

The walkout in late February deprived the Republican majority of the legislative quorum necessary to pass legislation that Democrats characterized as hurtful to working families.

The move was reminiscent of the Democratic tactic in the Wisconsin battle over public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights, except that in Indiana’s case the Democrats were objecting to the entire Republican agenda.

Despite sharp words from both sides throughout the Indiana standoff, its conclusion came through a series of bipartisan compromises.

A right-to-work bill, which would have barred all employees from paying union fees, was the first of several the Democrats criticized, but it was removed from the legislative docket soon after the walkout.

Other bills were rewritten to make them easier for Democrats to digest and to lure them back to the state. They included a school voucher bill that Republicans originally designed to become the largest of its kind in the United States, but later was capped at serving 7,500 eligible students in the first year and 15,000 students in the second.

Another bill involved a Republican attempt to make public construction projects up to a certain size exempt from exclusively hiring union labor. The compromise with Democrats lowered the maximum price tag on the exempt projects from $1 million to $350,000.

Because Democrats are the minority party, they were under no illusion the bills would be killed, says John Schorg, a spokesman for the House Democrats. Instead, their walkout would simply help make “onerous bills less onerous.”

Once compromises were made to those bills and others, the Democrats had little reason left to remain self-exiled in a nearby Urbana, Ill. hotel,” Mr. Schorg says.

“In a perfect world we would have thrown [the bills] in the garbage and be done with them,” he says. “We had probably gotten to the point where we had gotten as much as we could and the time was here to come back.”

Unlike the three-week walkout of 14 Senate Democrats in Wisconsin, the Indiana walkout was hinged on several issues, which likely kept it from continuing indefinitely, says Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center on Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

“The fact that there was not one or two issues that drove all the Democrats to Illinois may have actually made it more difficult to hold that coalition together. Eventually it was going to break up,” Mr. Downs says.

Despite having to vote on bills they see as compromised, however, some see the ordeal as benefiting House Democrats, the theory being the incident will energize their base, the momentum of which could last once it is time for reelection.

“They’re apparently hoping for some kind of anti-Republican sentiment,” which will help galvanize supporters and reach out to voters who may have benefited from having the bills cut back, says Brian Vargus, who teaches political science at Indiana University-Purdue University.

“There’s no way [Democrats] can call it a victory because they’re in the minority, but it’s certainly a gain. It also gives them some campaign issues with organized labor,” says Mr. Vargus.

In a statement released Monday, Indiana House Democratic leader Patrick Bauer characterized the walkout as a “timeout forced by Democrats” to give “Hoosiers an opportunity to examine the radical agenda being attempted in Indiana and to speak out.”

The Democrats announced their return early Monday afternoon. A session was immediately called at 5 p.m. Legislators of both parties are expected to work late Monday; late nights are likewise expected the rest of the week.

Because the compromises over the controversial bills were worked on during closed room negotiations, their passage should go swiftly. That should leave legislators enough time to pass a two-year state budget by April 29, the last day in session.

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