Wis. GOP Senators Outmaneuver Missing Democrats

Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate made an end-run around state Democrats, voting Wednesday night to strip collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And Im Ari Shapiro. Steve Inskeep is on assignment in Cairo.

This was the scene at the Wisconsin State House last night in Madison.

(Soundbite of chanting protestors)

SHAPIRO: Those rowdy protests came after Governor Scott Walker's Republican allies in the State Senate effectively outmaneuvered Democrats, and apparently ended a three-week stalemate. The Republican senators passed a measure that sharply curbs collective bargaining rights for most of the state's public employees.

Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson was there and he joins us now. Good morning.

SHAWN JOHNSON: Good morning.

SHAPIRO: Shawn, what finally broke the standoff?

JOHNSON: Well, for weeks, Democrats had been able up this plan by leaving the state; because this was introduced as a part of a budget repair bill, you need a larger quorum senators present to even take a vote. And thats why Democrats were relevant all this time, even though they're in the minority.

But it's also why Republicans finally did what they did yesterday. They took budget issues out of this plan so that they could vote on the collective bargaining stuff, whether Democrats were in town or town.

Republican Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald said, otherwise, he was concerned Democrats were going to stall indefinitely. And he said the approach the Republicans took followed the letter of the law.

State Senator SCOTT FITZGERALD (Republican, Majority Leader): I have consulted with the Legislative Council, the Legislative Reference Bureau and the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, and have been advised that this proposal would not trigger the special quorum requirement.

SHAPIRO: So the missing Democrats had nothing to do with this, never came back to town, were not involved in the vote at all?

JOHNSON: No. I mean, basically they were outmaneuvered. They had really one extraordinary procedural move was met by another.

SHAPIRO: Well, as we heard in the tape at the top of this interview, the protestors were furious. Did they see this coming?

JOHNSON: Not really. I mean they knew there was going to be a vote on this at some point, but the way that it happened was definitely extraordinary. And Democrats contend that it happened so fast that it was a violation of the state's Open Meeting Laws - although Republicans dispute that.

But the entire process happened very quickly. At about 4 o'clock Central Time, Republican leaders said they were going to convene a special committee to consider this plan. Less than two hours later, that committee met and passed the bill. Just a few minutes after that Republicans senators met, and voted 18-to-1 in favor of the plan without any debate, and without a single Democrat in the room.

It prompted thousands of protestors to flood the capitol. And at some point, there were so many people pushing their way through the building's entrances that police just gave up trying to stop them.

University of Wisconsin, Madison graduate student and teaching assistant, union activist Peter Rickman was in the crowd. He was angry with the way this bill passed yesterday.

Mr. PETER RICKMAN (Graduate Student/Union Activist): The way - the unprecedented way that Republican leadership here contravene fundamental, basic standards of democracy, has turned people from being inspired to take action against an unrepresentative government, thats looking to take away their rights, to just being angry enough to mobilize in a whole new way.

SHAPIRO: Well, Shawn, since youve been covering this story for a while, what do you think the likelihood of that is? Are the Democrats going to mobilize in a whole new way at this point?

JOHNSON: Well, I mean they definitely see an upside. They think that the level of energy that this has generated could translate to the ballot box. And already there are recall petitions being circulated against eight of the Republicans who voted for this plan. Should also mention that there are recalls being organized against some of the Democratic senators who left town; but Democrats think that, overall, this is an issue that energizes their base -certainly more than it was energized in last year's election.

SHAPIRO: Shawn, is the bill now law? If now, what are the next steps?

JOHNSON: No, it still has to pass the Wisconsin State Assembly, which is Wisconsin's House - although the vote there is a little bit of a foregone conclusion, given that lawmakers there did pass a similar version a few weeks ago.

That said, the way that things have happened around the capitol building lately, the circumstances of how they get to that vote and how it happens are worth watching.

SHAPIRO: Thanks.

Thats Shawn Johnson of Wisconsin Public Radio, speaking with us from Madison.

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