February 21, 2011 in Nation/World

Pressure mounts in Wisconsin standoff

GOP lawmakers vow to convene anyway
Ryan J. Foley Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Opponents of the governor’s bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Republicans on Sunday upped the pressure on Democrats who fled to Illinois to return home and vote on an anti-union bill, with the governor calling them obstructionists and a GOP lawmaker threatening to convene without them.

Gov. Scott Walker said the 14 minority Democrats who left Madison on Thursday were failing to do their jobs by “hiding out” in another state. And Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said his chamber would meet Tuesday to act on non-spending bills and confirm some of the governor’s appointees even if the Democrats don’t show up.

Senate Democrats acknowledged that the 19 Republicans could pass any item that doesn’t spend state money in their absence. The budget-repair bill they have been blocking requires a quorum of 20 senators to pass, while other measures require only a simple majority of the chamber’s 33 members.

Nonetheless, Democrats said they were standing firm in their opposition to the budget-repair bill, which would take away the right of most public employees to collectively bargain for their benefits and working conditions. Hundreds of protesters filled the Capitol for a sixth day, noisily calling on Walker to drop the plan they consider an assault on workers’ rights.

Mary Bell, the president of Wisconsin’s teachers union, called on teachers to return to work today rather than protest and continue absences that have shut down public schools across the state. She said unions agreed to cuts in health care and retirement benefits that could reduce take-home pay for many workers by about 8 percent, and it was time for the Republican governor to compromise.

In an interview Sunday with Fox News, Walker said he did not believe union leaders were really interested in giving up their benefits, and that cities, school districts and counties will need weakened unions to cut spending for years to come. Walker said he would not compromise and predicted Wisconsin would pave the way for other states, much like it did with welfare reform and school vouchers in the 1990s.

“We’re willing to take this as long as it takes because in the end we’re doing the right thing,” Walker said.

The massive protests that started Tuesday have gained steam, with an estimated 68,000 people turning out Saturday inside and around the Capitol. Most opposed the bill, but the day marked the first time that a significant contingent of Walker supporters showed up to counter-protest.

Another large rally was expected today, when many state workers are being furloughed to save money.

Speaking from “an undisclosed location in northern Illinois,” Sen. Minority Leader Mark Miller, of Monona, said he and others would not come back until Walker was ready to negotiate.

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