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70,000 protesters join Wisconsin budget fight

Protesters gather in Madison, Wis., after a rally outside the Capitol on Saturday. A few dozen police stood between supporters of Gov. Scott Walker and a mass of pro-labor demonstrators.

Associated Press

Protesters gather in Madison, Wis., after a rally outside the Capitol on Saturday. A few dozen police stood between supporters of Gov. Scott Walker and a mass of pro-labor demonstrators.

MADISON, Wis. — Sometimes they cursed each other, sometimes they shook hands, sometimes they walked away from each other in disgust.

None of it — not the ear-splitting chants, the pounding drums or the back-and-forth debate between 70,000 protesters — changed the minds of Wisconsin lawmakers dug into a stalemate over Republican efforts to scrap union rights for almost all public workers.

"The people who are not around the Capitol square are with us," said Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester and co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee.

After nearly a week of political chaos in Madison, during which tens of thousands of pro-labor protesters turned the Capitol into a campsite that had started to smell like a locker room, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker came out in force Saturday. They gathered on the muddy east lawn of the Capitol and were soon surrounded by a much larger group of union supporters who countered their chants of "Pass the bill! Pass the bill!" with chants of "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!"

"Go home!" union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read "If you don't like it, quit" on one side, and "If you don't like that, try you're fired" on the other.

A lone demonstrator stood between the crowds, saying nothing and holding a sign: "I'm praying that we can all respect each other. Let's try to understand each other."

The Wisconsin governor, elected in November's GOP wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans, set off the protests earlier this week by pushing ahead with a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs and largely eliminate their collective bargaining rights.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said the crowds that have gotten bigger each day have yet to win over any member of his caucus. "What they're getting from individuals back home is, stick to your guns, don't let them get to you," Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald and other Republicans say the concessions are needed to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers. The move to restrict union rights has also taken hold in other states, including Tennessee and Indiana, where lawmakers have advanced bills to restrict bargaining for teachers unions.

The throngs of Walker supporters who arrived in Madison on Saturday for a rally organized by Tea Party Patriots, the movement's largest umbrella group, and Americans for Prosperity, carried signs with messages such as: "Your Gravy Train Is Over … Welcome to the Recession."

.fast facts

Missing legislators still out of sight

Democratic Wisconsin senators, who fled the state to deny Republicans a quorum needed for a vote on the reform bill, said Saturday they are more resolved than ever to stay away "as long as it takes" until Gov. Scott Walker agrees to negotiate. "I don't think he's really thought it through, to be honest," Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton, said Saturday.

70,000 protesters join Wisconsin budget fight 02/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 10:46pm]
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