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MADISON, Wis. â Sometimes they cursed each other, sometimes they shook hands, sometimes they walked away from each other in disgust.
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None of it â not the ear-splitting chants, the pounding drums or the back-and-forth debate between 70,000 protesters â changed the minds of Wisconsin lawmakers dug into a stalemate over Republican efforts to scrap union rights for almost all public workers.
“The people who are not around the Capitol square are with us,” said Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester and co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee. “They may have a bunch around the square, but we’ve got the rest on our side.”
After nearly a week of political chaos in Madison, during which tens of thousands of pro-labor protesters turned the Capitol into a campsite that had started to smell like a locker room, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker came out in force Saturday.
They gathered on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and were soon surrounded by a much larger group of union supporters who countered their chants of “Pass the bill! Pass the bill!” with chants of “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!”
“Go home!” union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read “If you don’t like it, quit” on one side, and “If you don’t like that, try you’re fired” on the other.
A lone demonstrator stood between the crowds, saying nothing and holding a sign: “I’m praying that we can all respect each other. Let’s try to understand each other.”
The Wisconsin governor, elected in November’s GOP wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans, set off the protests earlier this week by pushing ahead with a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the crowds that have gotten bigger each day have yet to win over any member of his caucus.
“What they’re getting from individuals back home is stick to your guns, don’t let them get to you,” Fitzgerald said. “Every senator I’ve spoken to today is getting that back home, which is awesome. It’s great to hear from people who are part of a rally … (but) two people you meet at a fish fry or a person who comes up to you at a basketball game, those comments sink in.”
Fitzgerald and other Republicans say the concessions are needed to deal with the state’s projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers. The move to restrict union rights has also taken hold in other states, including Tennessee and Indiana, where lawmakers have advanced bills to restrict bargaining for teachers’ unions.
The throngs of Walker supporters who arrived in Madison on Saturday for an afternoon rally organized by Tea Party Patriots, the movement’s largest umbrella group, and Americans for Prosperity, carried signs with a fresh set of messages: “Your Gravy Train Is Over … Welcome to the Recession” and “Sorry, we’re late Scott. We work for a living.”
“We pay the bills!” tea party favorite Herman Cain yelled to cheers from the pro-Walker crowd. “This is why you elected Scott Walker, and he’s doing his job. … Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, `What part of broke don’t you understand?'”
Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate, short of the votes needed to keep Republicans from passing the so-called “budget repair” bill, fled the state on Thursday. They haven’t been seen since, and said Saturday they are more resolved than ever to stay away “as long as it takes” until Walker agrees to negotiate.
“I don’t think he’s really thought it through, to be honest,” Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton, said Saturday.
Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker’s proposal, so long as workers retain their right to negotiate with the state as a union.
Fitzgerald said that’s an offer the GOP has rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are necessary so that local governments and the state have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.
Walker, who was spending time with his family Saturday and didn’t appear in public, also rejected the Democrats offer. His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said the fastest way to end the stalemate was for Democrats to return and “do their jobs.”
Madison police estimated that 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol on Saturday, with up to 8,000 more inside. The normally immaculate building had become a mess of mud-coated floors that reeked from days of protesters standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Police spokesman Joel DeSpain said there were no arrests or problems during Saturday’s protests. “We’ve seen and shown the world that in Madison, Wis., we can bring people together who disagree strongly on a bill in a peaceful way,” he said.
Steve Boss, 26, a refrigerator technician from Oostburg, carried a sign that read “The Protesters Are All `Sick’ — Wash your Hands,” a reference to the teacher sick-outs that swelled crowds at the Capitol to 40,000 people Friday and raised the noise in its rotunda to earsplitting levels. Boss said the cuts Walker has proposed were painful but needed to fix the state’s financial problems.
“It’s time to address the issue. They (public workers) got to take the same cuts as everyone else,” he said. “It’s a fairness thing.”
Doctors from numerous hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes to explain public employees’ absences from work. Family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, said he had given out hundreds of notes. Many of the people he spoke with seemed to be suffering from stress, he said.
“What employers have a right to know is if the patient was assessed by a duly licensed physician about time off of work,” Sanner said. “Employers don’t have a right to know the nature of that conversation or the nature of that illness. So it’s as valid as every other work note that I’ve written for the last 30 years.”
John Black, 46, of Madison, said he came out to the rallies in order to help bridge the gap between the pro-labor protesters and Walker’s supporters. He carried signs that asked for a compromise on the budget bill while a friend’s son handed out purple flowers.
“We liked Scott Walker as a change agent, but he moved too quickly and because of that there’s always room for compromise,” Black said.
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