Absentee 'Wisconsin 14': Weren't they supposed to be back by now?

A homecoming that seemed imminent on Monday appears to be off on Tuesday, as trust erodes between Democratic 'Wisconsin 14' and Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Labor standoff resumes.

Darren Hauck/Reuters
A State Assembly Democrat pumps his fist as supporters voice their opinion against the proposed bill by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Madison, Wisconsin, on Feb. 18. The proposal by Walker to curb the bargaining rights of public unions in order to make immediate budget savings has sparked outrage among union workers in the state.

Where in the world are Wisconsin’s 14 rogue Democratic state senators? They’re not yet back at work at the Capitol in Madison, that’s for sure.

The "Wisconsin 14" have been on the lam since mid-February, blocking a vote on a budget bill that would strip most public employee unions of collective bargaining power, among other things. On Monday, their return seemed imminent, as several of them told reporters they thought they’d made their point and the end was near. But now the homecoming seems off, at least for the time being, and both sides are grumpily blaming the other for the breakdown.

What’s going on?

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests

The first point to be made is that the gap in trust between the two sides seems to be getting wider, not narrower. Quiet negotiations have been going on for some time, but that process broke apart completely Monday amid public bickering.

Monday’s timeline went like this: First, the Democrats’ leader, Sen. Mark Miller, sent GOP Gov. Scott Walker (R) a letter asking for a meeting. Then Governor Walker held a press conference at which he called the letter “ridiculous,” because his staff had already been meeting with several of the Democrats, as Senator Miller knew.

Walker said the only reason a deal had not been reached was because Miller was “firmly standing in the way.”

Next, Democrats reacted angrily to what they saw as a public attempt to divide them and pit factions against one another. They said the meetings had been a means of explaining to Republicans what they were thinking and why they did not want to come back.

One Democrat involved in the talks about possible compromises, Sen. Bob Jauch, said, “Trust is completely broken down now. I don’t believe anything [Walker] says.”

It’s a political truism that negotiating via press conference seldom works. If there had been quiet progress toward a deal, it’s likely gone now – the Democrats may be forced to stand together in the face of Walker’s criticism.

This leads to a second point: It does seem as if the Wisconsin Democrats are not of one mind. Some say they’ll stay in Illinois until the governor agrees to maintain public union collective bargaining – something that at this point seems about as likely as the Cubs winning the World Series. Others say that the senators can’t live over the border forever and that they have won the larger political war. Public opinion in both Wisconsin and the nation is against Walker on this issue, they say, and it’s likely that Democrats will be able to reverse the decision at some point.

“You reach a point where you say, ‘If our goal was to enlighten the public, we’ve done it,’ " Senator Jauch told The New York Times on Monday. “There’s a time – and the time seems to be drawing near – where our usefulness is wearing thin.”

Some conservatives now believe it’s just a matter of time until the Democrats fracture. Only one needs to return to Madison for the state Senate to gain a quorum and the ability to resume votes, after all.

“Over the weekend the 14 AWOL senators lost whatever unit cohesion that they might have had in the first place,” writes Moe Lane on the conservative blog Red State.

Wisconsin Senate Democrats on Tuesday indicated that their return was not imminent but that a decision about when to come back would be considered on a day-to-day basis. The state Senate Tuesday also began imposing $100-per-day fines on each of the Wisconsin 14 for missing work.

IN PICTURES: Wisconsin Capitol protests

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