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Wisconsin Democrats could stay away for weeks

By Scott Bauer

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 7:40 p.m. MST

Jesse Jackson stands with protesters at the Capitol rotunda in Madison, Wis. on Friday, Feb. 17, 2011. Union members, students and others have been protesting the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.

The Rockford Register-Star , Max Gersh) MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Democrats on the run in Wisconsin avoided state troopers Friday and threatened to stay in hiding for weeks, potentially paralyzing the state government in a standoff with majority Republicans over union rights for public employees.

The dramatic flight from the state stalled a proposal that seeks to ease Wisconsin's budget woes by cutting the pay, benefits and collective bargaining rights of many government workers. Democrats who stayed in Madison scored their own victory, forcing the state Assembly to adjourn until at least Tuesday without taking a vote.

The party's two-front battle against the legislation is the boldest action yet by Democrats to push back against last fall's GOP wave, and it's taken hold even as the anti-union agenda pushed by new GOP Gov. Scott Walker spreads to other states.

But the dramatic strategy that has clogged the Capitol with thousands of protesters clashes with one essential truth: Republicans told everyone months ago that unions would be one of their targets, and the GOP now has more than enough votes to pass its plans once the Legislature can convene.

"This is not a win," said Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chairman of the budget committee that has already endorsed the plan, of the adjournment. "This is just a reality we're living with. ... The bill's still moving forward."

The 14 Senate Democrats left the state Thursday, delaying action in that chamber on the sweeping bill. Among them was Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who said Friday the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would prefer to end the stalemate sooner.

"That really, truly is up to the governor," he told The Associated Press in an interview Friday at a downtown Chicago hotel. "It's his responsibility to bring the state together. The state is not unified. It is totally torn part."

Meanwhile, the protests at the state Capitol entered a fourth day and continued to grow — to an estimated 40,000 people, the largest crowd yet. Many schools were closed again after teachers called in sick, including the state's largest district, in Milwaukee.

The protests are so large that Capitol workers cannot safely move through the halls, with GOP Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald calling the situation "a powder keg."

The throngs of protesters — including teachers, prison guards and many students — have been largely peaceful. Police reported just nine citations for minor offenses as of Friday. But tensions were expected to rise Saturday, when conservative tea party groups planned their own rallies.

"You can't ignore this sustained and inspirational outpouring of people who are demanding changes," said Democratic Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca, who said the Assembly's decision to adjourn for the holiday weekend a huge victory that will increase pressure on Republicans to change course.

But neither Walker or the Republicans who took control of both the state Senate and Assembly in November appear ready to make any concessions.

Walker called on Senate Democrats to "come home" and rebuffed a request to sit down with them to seek a compromise.

The leader of the state's largest public employee said workers were prepared to discuss financial concessions but not to give up bargaining rights.

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said protests would continue until Walker agrees to negotiate.

Republicans aborted an attempt to hold a final vote on the bill without Democrats, who had been in a closed caucus meeting. Democrats sprinted into the chamber yelling to stop the vote, and the GOP leadership retreated.

Protester Carrie Dainty said the delay made her hopeful. "They'll be back on Tuesday, and we'll be here until Tuesday," she said.

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