MADISON, Wis. – A state Capitol thrown into chaos swelled for a fifth day with thousands of protesters, as supporters of Republican efforts to scrap the union rights of state workers added their voices to the debate for the first time and GOP leaders insisted again Saturday there was no room for compromise.
Supporters of Gov. Scott Walker and his effort to ease Wisconsin’s budget woes gathered on the east side of the Capitol, surrounded by a much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators who since Tuesday have filled the Capitol with chanting, drum-beats and anti-Walker slogans. Walker has proposed requiring government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminating their collective bargaining rights.
Saturday’s line-up included a rally organized by Tea Party Patriots, the movement’s largest umbrella group, and Americans for Prosperity. Their supporters 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 did have an election and Scott Walker won,” said Deborah Arndt, 53, of Sheboygan Falls. “I think our governor will stand strong. I have faith in him.”
Arndt and the other conservative backers of Walker had their faith rewarded shortly before the start of the noon rally, when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reaffirmed that Republicans — who took control of both the state Senate and Assembly in November — have the votes needed pass the measure.
“The bill is not negotiable,” Fitzgerald said inside a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol. “The bill will pass as is.”
Fitzgerald said the Senate is ready to act on the so-called “budget repair” bill just as up as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. The missing Democrats have threatened to stay away for weeks unless Walker agrees to negotiate.
Sen. Tim Cullen, a Democrat from Janesville, refused to say where he was Saturday but said he didn’t expect the Senate to meet again until Tuesday. Cullen said he was watching Saturday’s rallies on television with some friends.
“I’m hoping to see no violence, that’s what I’m hoping most to see,” Cullen said. “This has been a very peaceful, respectful thing all week given the size of the crowds.”
The governor was spending time with his family Saturday and wasn’t expected to make an appearance at the tea party-organized rally. His spokesman said the governor’s office has been receiving 1,000 e-mails an hour, most of them in support of his position.
Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker’s proposal that would double workers’ health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state as a union.
Fitzgerald said he was unimpressed given that the offer was something the GOP has rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are needed so that local governments and the state will have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.
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