Wisconsin GOP ups pressure on Democrats to return and vote

By Ryan J. Foley

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2011 4:10 p.m. MST

Capital Police officer Greg Friberg of Milwaukee looks a poster on display at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Sunday, Feb. 20, 2011. Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers are on their sixth day of protesting.

Andy Manis, Associated Press

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 — a scenario that should outrage their constituents.

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 straight day, noisily calling on Walker to drop the plan they consider an assault on workers' rights.

Mary Bell, the president of Wisconsin's powerful teachers' union, called on teachers to return to work as scheduled Monday rather than continue absences to protest that have shut down public schools across the state. The Madison district said it would still cancel Monday's classes. 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 a Sunday morning interview from Madison with Fox News, Walker said he did not believe union leaders were really interested in giving up their benefits and 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 to follow suit, 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 sweeping measure led to massive protests that started Tuesday and 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.

Sunday's crowd was much smaller, as snow and freezing rain moved the protest inside the Capitol. But the crowd swelled throughout the day, and protesters chanted for hours in opposition to the bill. Another large protest was expected Monday, when many state workers are being furloughed to save money.

Mariah Clark, an emergency medical technician at University of Wisconsin hospital and a volunteer firefighter, said she stands to lose $250 per month from her income with the benefits concessions. Standing on a bench holding a sign reading "EMT. Firefighter. Not the public enemy," she said the pay cut would hurt but that's not why she was protesting.

"I really believe this is about workers everywhere, not just public employees," said Clark, 29. "It's pathetic that in Wisconsin, one of the places where the labor movement started, that this would happen."

Jacob Cedillo Tootalian, a 27-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate student and teaching assistant, slept overnight in the Capitol for a third time this week as part of a union representing teaching assistants. He said he was worried about paying more for his health insurance and tuition, but what kept him protesting was the possibility of losing the union.

"Normalcy would be nice," he said. "But it seems the governor and the state Republicans are intent on taking these rights away."

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