In Wis., Political Standoff Continues

Protesters filled and surrounded the Wisconsin state Capitol Monday for the seventh day in a row. Unionized public employees are outraged over a plan put forth by Republican Gov. Scott Walker that would strip most collective bargaining rights from most government workers. Walker insists he needs that change to address the state's budget deficit. Wisconsin Republicans say they are going back to work even if they can't pass the bill in the state Senate — because Senate Democrats left town.

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Unidentified Group: Kill the bill. Kill the bill.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

For the seventh day in a row, protesters filled and surrounded the Wisconsin state capitol today.

Unidentified Group: Kill the bill. Kill the bill.

Unionized public employees, teachers and other state workers are outraged over a plan put forth by Republican Governor Scott Walker. That plan would strip most collective bargaining rights from most government workers. Walker insists he needs that change to address the state's budget deficit. And Wisconsin Republicans say they're going back to work even if they can't pass the bill in the state Senate because Senate Democrats left town.

NPR's David Schaper is in Madison to tell us what's happening.

DAVID SCHAPER: Well, today was another day of protests, both inside and outside the state capitol. I'm inside the capitol building now, where things are a little bit warmer, given that it's February in Wisconsin.

But there is another very big crowd here today, people lined up to try to get into the capitol to join in some of the rallies and a huge crowd outside, where speakers and bands and musicians and artists were performing.

It's kind of an all-day, constant thing here. It's been going on all day and all night. There's people who are camped out here and continuing to hold vigil all night long.

SIEGEL: And is the Wisconsin Legislature going to get back to work soon?

SCHAPER: Yes for that, and kind of no, as well. Majority Republicans will call both chambers back in tomorrow, even though in the Senate, the Democrats won't be there. They vow to continue to stay away.

So this particular bill, the so-called Budget Repair Bill, which needs a special majority of at least 20 of the 33 senators to be considered, still cannot be called for a vote.

That's not making Republican majority leader Scott Fitzgerald very happy. He said today the Senate will meet tomorrow to consider other, non-budgetary items and show the state and really the nation that the Republicans, anyway, are eager to do their jobs.

State Senator SCOTT FITZGERALD (Republican, Wisconsin): The idea that these 14 senators have checked out on the process and tried to shut down government in the south wing is outrageous. And that's why I felt compelled to start creating regular session calendars so that we can show the public that no, you can't shut down government.

You know, just because they don't want to participate, you can't stop us from doing the people's work.

SCHAPER: Now, the Democrats say that they, too, want to get back to work and are really doing their jobs from afar. Some are staying away from the capitol, as far away as in Chicago. One of those staying in Chicago is Democratic State Senator Jon Erpenbach.

State Senator JON ERPENBACH (Democrat, Wisconsin): We could be back in Madison later this afternoon and voting on it tonight, if Governor Walker would just understand that there's a very legitimate compromise on the table and something that would unite the state again, at least. Right now, Wisconsin is as deeply divided as I've ever seen it.

SCHAPER: That compromise that is on the table, according to Erpenbach and a lot of the unions here, is that they're willing to give the financial concessions that the governor has been asking for. They just don't want the provisions of the bill that would essentially gut, in their mind, collective bargaining rights for most state workers.

And so in the Assembly, the lower chamber, the House, if you will, in the Wisconsin Legislature, they will be taking this bill up tomorrow. They will be voting on it. Democrats have not gone away and will stay in session as well and will try to offer some amendments and slow the process down, muck up the works, if they can, to try to keep it from passing, at least very quickly.

SIEGEL: And David, you said most public employee unions. Do I have this right, that the governor's proposal would not alter collective bargaining for all public employee unions in Wisconsin?

SCHAPER: No, the bill makes an exception for public safety workers, in particular many police officers around the state and firefighters in the state of Wisconsin.

SIEGEL: Can you get any sense of whether these protests are gaining support or losing support as they go on?

SCHAPER: It's a little difficult, today in particular, because the crowd is not nearly as big as it was on Saturday. The protests are going to continue, but it's probably going to lose a little bit of momentum as a lot of folks have to get back to work.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Schaper in Madison, Wisconsin. Thank you, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Robert.

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