INDIANAPOLIS — Most Indiana House Democrats were no-shows on the floor Wednesday when the Republican speaker tried to start the new session, a possible sign that lawmakers were walking out for the second straight year to oppose a "right-to-work" bill.
The absence of most Democrats left the House short of the two-thirds members present to continue.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said a boycott by Democrats wouldn't lead to the bill being quashed as it was last year. He said Democrats were bowing to pressure from union leaders and said the proposal's passage was a key to making Indiana more attractive to potential employers.
"It is the No. 1 jobs issue that we can address this session and the No. 1 issue is jobs," Bosma said.
House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer, who led last year's five-week boycott, told The Associated Press that his caucus would debate during a private meeting about how to handle the GOP proposal that would make Indiana the 23rd state to bar businesses and private unions from mandating that workers pay union fees for representation.
Democrats spent more than three hours holed up in a conference room in a corner of the Statehouse a couple minutes' walk from the House floor. Democratic lawmakers periodically walked in and out of the room, but offered no insight about what their strategy. Democrats said they would hold a news conference later.
Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, called a walkout "the only way" to block the bill.
But Democratic lawmakers seemed split on whether to make such a move. New fines and lawmakers concerned about re-election in 2012 have made the group wary of another walkout. Rep. Scott Reske, D-Pendleton, says he feels the $1,000-a-day fine is expensive and he hinted that some Democrats might not push for it.
"You don't use the same tactic twice," he said.
When House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, tried to gavel the House into order, just five of the 40 Democrats were on the floor. He ended the session after three minutes following the daily prayer and pledge of allegiance, prompting a short burst of cheers from some labor union protesters who filled the public gallery. Another attempt about an hour later saw a similar turnout.
When asked how long Democrats would remain in the private meeting, Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, said: "Two hours, 10 hours, 12 hours. Who knows?"
Hundreds of union members packed the hall outside the room where Democrats met Wednesday afternoon and cheered each member as they walked into the caucus meeting.
A few hours before the session started, Bauer referenced the U.S. Senate's filibuster as the minority party's best tool for taking on the majority. He said a similar effort in Indiana would require the vast majority of his caucus to act in unison.
"Here it takes a caucus of at least a substantial minority," he said in an interview.
After Democrats walked out last year, Bosma and his Senate counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, supported the adoption of the new $1,000-a-day fines on each lawmaker boycotts their chamber for more than three days in a row.
House Democrats could also decide to stay meeting in their caucus room indefinitely, effectively denying Republicans the numbers needed to conduct business without actually leaving the state. It is unclear, though, whether that would be as effective in blocking the "right-to-work" bill.
Bosma said Tuesday he had not taken a tally, but is confident he can lock in the votes he needs to pass the measure.
Indiana's Senate Democrats lack the numbers needed to block the measure in their chamber — Indiana's Senate has no filibuster — where they are outnumbered by Republicans 37-13. Thus the focus has been squarely on the House Democrats.
Bosma and Long set a Friday hearing for both the Senate and House versions of the "right-to-work" bill. The respective measures will move through both chambers simultaneously.
"We have options so that we can react to whatever Rep. Bauer and his team have planned," Bosma said Tuesday.
A last-ditch option for House Democrats is trying to sway at least 10 Republicans to their side. Republicans hold a 60-40 majority in the House and would need at least 51 votes to pass the measure.
The Indiana AFL-CIO has been airing TV and radio ads targeting Republicans who may be vulnerable in the 2012 elections if they vote in favor "right to work." Bosma and Gov. Mitch Daniels have been airing their own ads throughout the state in support of the measure, and the National Right to Work Committee has sent staffers to the state to build grass-roots support for the measure.