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Wis. Senate’s Surprise Vote to Restrict Bargaining Stuns Unions, Democrats

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; file photo

In a swift and surprising move that caught Democrats and union leaders off-guard, Republicans in Wisconsin’s state Senate approved a bill Wednesday night that would curtail collective bargaining rights for most public unions and could potentially end a three-week standoff that has captured national attention.

The vote on a revised bill happened so quickly and with so little notice that Democrats questioned the legality of the parliamentary procedure, suggesting a possible legal challenge in the days ahead.

Since the beginning of massive public protests in February, Republicans clearly had enough votes to pass Gov. Scott Walker’s so-called budget repair bill that he said would close a deficit exceeding $3 billion over three years. But because the bill dealt with fiscal matters, it required a quorum in the state Senate — including just one Democrat — before it could be approved. Senate Democrats fled the state to deny Walker a vote and have refused to return.

On Wednesday evening, Senate Republicans announced they had revised the bill, stripping it of key fiscal provisions and thus enabling them to pass it without a quorum and without any Democrats present. Yet the bill included changes to health benefits, pensions and would sharply limit collective bargaining — all issues that most consider to be fiscal matters.

In the hours after the vote, neither Republicans nor the governor provided an explanation of that disparity despite calls from the NewsHour and many other news organizations.

“In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature’s action today to stand up to the status quo,” Walker said in a prepared statement. “This action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs.”

But Democrats and union members were furious, promising recall efforts to drive some Republicans out of office.

“In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller wrote in a statement. “In the dark of the night, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people. Now it’s time for the people of Wisconsin to take back their government.”

And outside the statehouse, our colleagues at Wisconsin Public Television told us there were very loud demonstrations.

“All levels of the Capitol and its central rotunda are solid demonstrators, shoulder to shoulder,” Art Hackett, a recently retired reporter for WPT told his colleague, Frederica Freyberg, who relayed the information to the NewsHour.

“While earlier reports said demonstrators crashed through security, at this hour (9:20 p.m. Wisconsin time) the security checkpoints have been abandoned by police officers,” Hackett said. “Police presence is noticeably absent in and around the Capitol. This is in stark contrast to earlier days when police were there in huge numbers. Cars outside are driving around the perimeter of the Capitol constantly honking their horns. It sounds and feels like V.J. day, but they’re not celebrating.”

The fallout will reverberate in the schools on Thursday as well.

WPT senior news producer Andy Moore told the NewsHour Wednesday night that high school students in Madison have organized a student walkout Thursday afternoon in conjunction with filmmaker and activist Michael Moore.

The legislation still had not been posted online as of 11 pm EST. Nor was the bill read during a committee hearing.

There had been talk of negotiations as recently as this weekend. Walker had claimed that at least two Democrats were ready to return from Illinois. But there seemed to be little progress in the stalemate before a sudden conference committee meeting at 6 p.m. local time.

By law, there should be at least two hours’ notice before the committee votes. Several legislators and reporters said that did not appear to be the case, but Senate Chief Clerk Rob Marchant released a statement tonight saying “the notice (posted on a bulletin board) appears to have satisfied the requirements of the rules and statutes.”

The Assembly is expected to approve the revised bill at 11 am tomorrow. At that point, many expect Senate Democrats to return. Legal challenges to the vote may be filed as well.

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