The bitter political standoff in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker's bid to sharply curtail collective bargaining for public-sector workers ended abruptly Wednesday night as Republican colleagues in the state Senate successfully maneuvered to adopt a bill doing just that.
After a three-week stalemate, Republican senators pushed the measure through in less than half an hour even as the Senate's Democrats remained many miles away, trying to block the vote. Democrats in the State Assembly complained bitterly, and protesters, who had spent many days at the Capitol, continued their chants and jeers.
The Republicans control the Senate but had been blocked from voting on the issue after Senate Democrats left the state last month to prevent a quorum. Instead, the Republicans used a procedural maneuver Wednesday to force the collective bargaining measure through: They removed elements of Walker's bill that were technically related to appropriating funds, thus lifting a requirement that 20 senators be present for a vote. In the end, the Senate's 19 Republicans approved the measure, 18 to 1, without any debate on the floor or a single Democrat in the room.
The bill still needs approval from the State Assembly, but that chamber approved the measure once before, and many in Wisconsin's Capitol now consider approval a foregone conclusion.
Walker, a Republican whose efforts to diminish collective bargaining rights have placed him firmly in the national spotlight during his less than three months in office, applauded the Senate's move and said it brought the state a step closer to balancing its budget. "The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs," he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, condemned the move as an attack on working families, a violation of open meetings requirements (most of them did not know there was to be a vote until not long before), and a virtual firebomb in state already politically polarized and consumed with recall efforts, large scale protests and fury from public workers.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin," said Mark Miller, the leader of the Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois on Feb. 17 to block just such a vote from occurring. "Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten."
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 doubles their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.