INDIANAPOLIS — While Indiana House Republicans were bracing for another possible Democratic boycott in the bruising right-to-work battle, Senate Republicans on Monday were cheering the final passage of the measure in their chamber just a few hundred feet away.
Senate Republicans had little trouble sending the divisive labor measure to the House. But later Monday evening House Democrats left the House floor after losing a series of party-line votes to Republicans, including a plan to put right-to-work on the ballot in November.
Democrats are widely outnumbered in both chambers. However, House Democrats have just enough members to stall business by boycotting, which has allowed them to block the right-to-work bill off and on throughout the session.
Last year House Democrats left the state for five weeks in an effort to block sweeping changes to the state's education system and the right-to-work measure, which would ban unions from collecting mandatory representation fees from workers whether or not the employees are members.
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma accused Democrats of looking for another reason to stall work on the measure. He said he planned to resume $1,000-a-day fines for Democrats who boycott the House session Tuesday.
Democratic House Minority Leader Patrick Bauer accused Republicans of stifling debate on the bill.
"They chose to shut the people out," Bauer said Monday evening, citing the failed effort to put the measure on the November ballot and Bosma's decision not to accept further amendments after ending the debate.
The House measure could come up for a final vote this week if Democrats return to the floor. Bauer said Democrats will meet Tuesday to decide whether to return.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans had little trouble giving final approval to the right-to-work proposal.
The Senate voted 28-22 to send their right-to-work measure to the House.
Republican Sen. Carlin Yoder of Middlebury argued the bill not only would help attract business to Indiana but also allow workers to decide whether to pay money to labor unions — drawing loud chants of "You lie" from several dozen protesters in the hallway outside the Senate chamber as it started its debate.
"I think this takes a big step toward giving freedom to all workers," Yoder said. "Let's give those workers freedom, freedom for themselves to choose and bring jobs to the state of Indiana."
All 13 Democratic senators voted against the bill. They were joined by nine Republican senators — none of whom spoke against the bill during the debate.
During the two-hour debate, Democrats repeatedly invoked Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' touting of the state's high rankings by business groups even without a right-to-work law. Senate Minority Leader Vi Simpson, D-Bloomington, pointed to the decisions by nonunion automakers Toyota and Honda to build large factories in the state in recent years.
"Right-to-work didn't mean a thing to them," she said.
Earlier Monday, House Republicans beat back a series of Democratic proposals to automatically sunset the right-to-work bill if unemployment climbs too high, mandate that the state's economic development corporation disclose terms of business agreements and make other tweaks to the measure.
Lawmakers did approve a pair of Republican amendments to exempt building and construction trade unions form the measure and giving the Department of Labor enforcement authority. The two changes align the House measure with the Senate plan.
Republicans' efforts Monday prefaced what could be a relatively easy final House vote for the right-to-work bill, if Democrats end return to the House this week.
If the measure is adopted, Indiana would become the first state in more than a decade to approve right-to-work legislation. National advocates have tried without success to push the measure in New Hampshire and other states following a wave of Statehouse victories by Republicans in 2010.
Supporters say the right-to-work measure would bring more jobs to Indiana, where unemployment has crept up to around 9 percent. Opponents say it is aimed at breaking unions and claim it would depress wages for all workers.
Democratic Rep. Scott Pelath of Michigan City opened the lengthy debate Monday with a procedural move designed to kill the measure. Democrats supporting the motion said the legislation is the most divisive bill the Legislature has ever seen.
"This institution is best served if we just end this right here and right now," said Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington. "If you look at the collateral damage that this institution has suffered ... you have to ask yourself, at what cost?"
Republican Rep. Jerry Torr of Carmel said the proposal was premature and the GOP-led House rejected the motion, 59-39, as union protesters chanted outside the House chamber.
Republican lawmakers were largely quiet throughout the hours-long debate, rising only occasionally to rebut Democrats. Republican Rep Ralph Foley of Martinsville argued that just because a measure is controversial does not mean it should be avoided.
"I think this is what we do, we don't avoid controversy," Foley said.
The right-to-work battle has disrupted the legislative session that began Jan. 4 and has brought large crowds of union protesters to the Statehouse. Bosma last week imposed $1,000-a-day fines against absent Democrats, but a Marion County judge issued an order Thursday blocking those fines from being deducted from the state paychecks of boycotters who have sued.
If the legislation passes, Indiana would become the 23rd state to approve a right-to-work law, handing national conservatives and business groups a major win on an issue that has recently eluded them elsewhere. It also would deal another blow to organized labor, which has seen mixed results in its fight against initiatives to curb union rights nationwide that followed the Republican victories in 2010.
The last state to enact a right-to-work law was Oklahoma in 2001.
Tom LoBianco can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/tomlobianco