MADISON, Wis. — Democrats on the run in Wisconsin avoided state troopers Friday and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks, potentially paralyzing the state government in a standoff with majority Republicans over union rights for public employees.
The dramatic flight from the state stalled a proposal that seeks to ease Wisconsin’s budget woes by cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of many government workers. Democrats who stayed in Madison scored their own victory, forcing the state Assembly to adjourn until at least Tuesday without taking a vote.
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The party’s two-front battle against the legislation is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall’s GOP wave, and it’s taken hold even as the anti-union agenda pushed by new GOP Gov. Scott Walker spreads to other states.
But the dramatic strategy that has clogged the Capitol with thousands of protesters clashes with one essential truth: Republicans told everyone months ago that unions would be one of their targets, and the GOP now has more than enough votes to pass its plans once the Legislature can convene.
“This is not a win,” said Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chairman of the budget committee that has already endorsed the plan, of the adjournment. “This is just a reality we’re living with. … The bill’s still moving forward.”
The 14 Senate Democrats left the state Thursday, delaying action in that chamber on the sweeping bill. Among them was Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who said Friday the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would prefer to end the stalemate sooner.
“That really, truly is up to the governor,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at a downtown Chicago hotel. “It’s his responsibility to bring the state together. The state is not unified. It is totally torn part.”
Meanwhile, the protests at the state Capitol entered a fourth day and continued to grow – to an estimated 40,000 people, the largest crowd yet. Many schools were closed again after teachers called in sick, including the state’s largest district, in Milwaukee.
The protests are so large that Capitol workers cannot safely move through the halls, with GOP Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald calling the situation “a powder keg.”
The throngs of protesters – including teachers, prison guards and many students – have been largely peaceful. Police reported just nine citations for minor offenses as of Friday. But tensions were expected to rise Saturday, when conservative tea party groups planned their own rallies.
“You can’t ignore this sustained and inspirational outpouring of people who are demanding changes,” said Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca, who called the Assembly’s decision to adjourn for the holiday weekend a huge victory that will increase pressure on Republicans to change course.
But neither Walker or the Republicans who took control of both the state Senate and Assembly in November appear ready to make any concessions. Walker called on Senate Democrats to “come home” and rebuffed a request to sit down with them to seek a compromise.
The leader of the state’s largest public employee said workers were prepared to discuss financial concessions but not to give up bargaining rights. Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said protests would continue until Walker agrees to negotiate.
Republicans aborted an attempt late Friday afternoon to hold a final vote on the bill without Democrats, who had been in a closed caucus meeting. Democrats sprinted into the chamber yelling to stop the vote, and the GOP leadership retreated.
Protester Carrie Dainty said the delay made her hopeful. “They’ll be back on Tuesday, and we’ll be here until Tuesday,” she said.
It’s not clear when the Senate Democrats will join them. Erpenbach said the decision to flee happened on the spur of the moment as Democrats gathered Thursday morning near the Capitol for a regular strategy meeting.
An hour later, he threw a toothbrush, razor and some clothes into a duffel bag and a backpack and jumped into a car, heading for a prearranged meeting at a hotel in Rockford, Ill., just south of the Wisconsin border.
The lawmakers were concerned that police could have detained them, even though the Wisconsin Constitution prohibits the arrest of state lawmakers while the Legislature is in session, except in cases of felonies, breaches of the peace or treason.
From Rockford, the legislators headed in different directions, most of them traveling to the Chicago area or to other parts of northern Illinois, Erpenbach said. Since leaving Wisconsin, he said he had not spoken to any of his Republican counterparts.
The Wisconsin walkout is similar to a 2003 confrontation in Texas, where Democrats were outnumbered by Republicans in a battle over congressional redistricting. The group got on a bus and fled for the Oklahoma border.
Former Texas state Rep. Jim Dunnam said the group had an “end game” – they had to stay away for one week to kill the bill by running it up against a legislative deadline. But they also knew their efforts were only temporary because Republican Gov. Rick Perry would call them into special session all summer until a bill passed, which he did.
“It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done politically,” said Texas state Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “It was not something we wanted to do. It was the last thing we could do to protect minority voting rights.”
In a sign that the commotion might be causing other problems for the governor, Walker pushed back the release of his two-year budget plan by one week, to March 1.
The governor insists the concessions he is seeking from public workers – including higher health insurance and pension contributions – are necessary to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs.
Eliminating their collective bargaining rights, except over wage increases not greater than the Consumer Price Index, is necessary in order to give the state and local governments and schools flexibility to deal with upcoming cuts in state aid, Walker said.
Those arguments don’t wash with Democrats who say the fight is really about political power and quashing the unions, whose members are longtime supporters of Democrats.
Erpenbach (URP’-ehn-bahk) accused Walker of trying to rush the legislation, which was publicly unveiled only a week ago.
“I’m not calling him a dictator. But this is dictatorial almost,” Erpenbach said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a draconian piece of legislation come down from any governor, Democrat or Republican.”
Republicans had warned since last year’s campaign that they would seek major concessions from unions. But for lawmakers in the minority, “The only other option we had to slow things down was to leave,” Erpenbach said.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane called the walkout in Madison the boldest action Democrats have taken since midterm elections swept Republican to power in statehouses across the country.
Walker “has been so strident that the way he’s engaged … has effectively given the Democrats the high ground in terms of how they’re responding,” Lehane said.
“What Wisconsin is going through isn’t all that different from other states,” he added. “But the way it’s being handled is.”
Associated Press writers Todd Richmond, Dinesh Ramde and Jason Smathers in Madison; Michael Tarm in Chicago; Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas; and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this story.
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