The Wisconsin Senate voted Wednesday night to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers, approving an explosive proposal that had rocked the state and unions nationwide after Republicans discovered a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats.
All 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's "budget-repair bill," a proposal introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spend money. But Republicans on Wednesday separated from the legislation the proposal to curtail union rights, which spends no money, and a special committee of lawmakers from both the Senate and Assembly approved the bill a short time later.
"The bill is on its way to becoming law after clearing what was the biggest hurdle to its passage," Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson told NPR's Robert Siegel.
The unexpected yet surprisingly simple procedural move ended a stalemate that had threatened to drag on indefinitely. Until Wednesday's stunning vote, it appeared the standoff would persist until Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state Senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. "Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people."
The lone Democrat present on the special committee, Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, shouted that the meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law. Republicans voted over his objections, and the Senate convened within minutes and passed the measure without discussion or debate.
"The gig is now up," Barca said. "The fraud on the people of Wisconsin is now clear."
Miller said in an interview with The Associated Press there is nothing Democrats can do now to stop the bill: "It's a done deal."
The bill, though affecting only one state, had become a key test for Republicans who made huge gains in November elections by promising to slash government spending at the national and state level in an effort to boost the economy. Efforts to defeat the bill had been crucial to public-sector unions, an important part of the Democratic base. Obama and other Democrats need the enthusiastic support of unions in the 2012 elections especially in swing states like Wisconsin.
Walker had repeatedly argued that collective bargaining was a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said that without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
Walker said Wednesday night that Democrats had three weeks to debate the bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come back, but refused.
"I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government," Walker said in the statement.
Wisconsin Public Radio's Johnson said that the reaction outside the Senate chamber was different, with protesters shouting, "Shame! Shame!"
The measure approved Wednesday forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker. Police and firefighters are exempt.
Walker's proposal touched off a national debate over union rights for public employees and prompted tens of thousands of demonstrators to converge on Wisconsin's capital for weeks of protests. Spectators in the Senate gallery screamed "You are cowards" as lawmakers voted on Wednesday.
About 2,000 protesters remained in the building after police repeatedly announced the building was closed and they needed to leave.
"The whole world is watching!" they shouted as they pressed up against the entrance to the Senate chamber, which was heavily guarded by state patrol officers.
The drama unfolded less than four hours after Walker met with Republican senators in a closed-door meeting. He emerged from the meeting saying senators were "firm" in their support of the bill.
For weeks, Democrats had offered concessions on issues other than the bargaining rights and they spent much of Wednesday again calling on Walker and Republicans to compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said earlier that Republicans had been discussing concessions offered by Walker, including allowing public workers to bargain over their salaries without a wage limit. Several Republican senators facing recall efforts had also publicly called for a compromise.
"The people of Wisconsin elected us to come to Madison and do a job," Fitzgerald said in a statement after the vote. "Just because the Senate Democrats won't do theirs, doesn't mean we won't do ours."
Union leaders weren't happy with Walker's offer, and were furious at the Senate's move to push the measure forward with a quick vote. Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin state AFL-CIO, said after Wednesday's vote that Republicans exercised a "nuclear option."
"Scott Walker and the Republicans' ideological war on the middle class and working families is now indisputable," Neuenfeldt said.
Although talks had been going on sporadically behind the scenes, Republicans in the Senate also had publicly tried to ratchet up pressure on Democrats to return. They had agreed earlier Wednesday to start fining Democrats $100 for each day legislative session day they miss.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report