MADISON, Wis. — A group of Democratic Wisconsin lawmakers blocked passage of a sweeping anti-union bill Thursday, refusing to show up for a vote and then abruptly leaving the state in an effort to force Republicans to the negotiating table.
As ever-growing throngs of protesters filled the Capitol for a third day, the 14 Democrats disappeared around noon, just as the Senate was about to begin debating the measure, which would end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
Hours later, one member of the group told the Associated Press they had left Wisconsin. "The plan is to try and slow this down because it's an extreme piece of legislation that's tearing this state apart," Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a telephone interview.
Democrats hoped Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers would consider revisions to the bill.
Walker, who took office just last month, urged the group to return and called the boycott a "stunt." But he vowed not to concede on his plan to end most collective bargaining rights.
President Barack Obama also entered Wisconsin's budget battle, accusing Walker of unleashing an "assault" on unions. Obama's political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to mobilize thousands of protesters to gather in Madison and to plan similar demonstrations in other state capitals, the Washington Post reported.
With 19 seats, Republicans hold a majority in the 33-member Wisconsin Senate, but they are one vote short of the number needed to conduct business. So the GOP needs at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. Once the measure is brought to the floor, it needs 17 votes to pass.
The sergeant-at-arms began looking for the missing lawmakers. Senate rules and the state constitution say absent members can be compelled to appear, but they do not say how.
The drama in Wisconsin unfolded in a jam-packed Capitol. Madison police and the State Department of Administration estimated the crowd at 25,000 protesters, the largest number yet.
Demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the building's hallways, sat cross-legged across the floor and made it difficult to move from room to room.
Protesters clogged the hallway outside the Senate chamber, beating on drums, holding signs deriding Walker and pleading for lawmakers to kill the bill. Some others even demonstrated outside lawmakers' homes.
Hundreds of teachers joined the protest by calling in sick, forcing a number of school districts to cancel classes.
Thousands more people, many of them students from the nearby University of Wisconsin, slept in the rotunda for a second night.
The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all nonfederal public employees.
In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage.