March 10, 2011
Wisconsin Assembly Approves Bargaining Curbs
By MONICA DAVEY
MADISON, Wis. — After weeks of debate over legislation to sharply curtail bargaining rights for government workers, the state Assembly here voted 53-42 Thursday to pass the measure, sending the bill to Gov. Scott Walker who promised to sign it as soon as possible.
The legislation passed following hours of debate. As the vote was taken, Democrats stood and jeered, "No," and people watching from the gallery began a chant of "shame!" as the Republicans filed out.
The minority leader, Peter Barca, said he believes the vote will not stand. "Even though we are very disappointed, we do have recourse in the courts," he said.
The State Senate approved similar legislation Wednesday with only Republican members casting votes; the chamber’s Democratic minority, who fiercely oppose the measure, remain out of the state.
Thousands of demonstrators had converged on the Capitol throughout the day creating a taut atmosphere in which Republican State Assembly members were seeking to maintain order long enough to vote on a bill that sharply curtails bargaining rights for government workers.
The State Assembly had been scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday morning, but the presence of the protesters forced a delay of a few hours. Earlier Thursday, some of the missing Democrats indicated that they would likely be returning to Wisconsin from Illinois soon, given that there was no longer a need to prevent a quorum. But State Senator Fred Risser, said he and at least a few of the other 14 Democrats planned to remain away from Wisconsin for the time being to prevent Republicans from attempting additional legislative maneuverings that could be used to prevent a Democratic legal challenge in the future to Wednesday’s vote.
By preventing people from entering the capitol building Thursday morning, the police also denied entry to legislators, including at least two Democratic Assembly members — David Cullen and Elizabeth Coggs.
Mr. Cullen was turned away even after displaying his Assembly identification.
Asked why the officers did not allow him inside, Mr. Cullen said: “I don’t know. And they won’t answer why.”
Later, Mr. Cullen and Ms. Coggs could be seen climbing into the building through a first-floor window.
The police said hundreds of people had entered the building overnight and that for the moment, no one would be allowed to enter or leave the building.
As an indication of how personal the legislation had become, during the Assembly debate Thursday afternoon, Representative Peter Barca, a leading Democrat, made a motion to remove Jeff Fitzgerald, the Republican speaker of the chamber.
Mr. Barca described Mr. Fitzgerald as “impaired,” then spoke about all that had happened over the past month — the last-minute meetings, onlookers being prevented from entering the building, plans to limit debate on the measure.
“Our democracy is out of control in Wisconsin,” Mr. Barca said. “And you all know it — you can feel it.”
Republicans sat silent as Mr. Barca spoke.
Later, Mr. Fitzgerald, predicted that the bill would pass Thursday afternoon. He said many people in the state, aside from those protesting in and around the Capitol, were supportive of the plan.
“We ran on this,” Mr. Fitzgerald told the Assembly. “We were going to get the fiscal place in order. This is the first piece of the puzzle. We’re broke.”
There was a brief moment of unity Thursday when the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights leader, offered a prayer. He urged Republicans and Democrats to hold hands across the aisle. They complied.
The main provisions of the legislation, which increases health care and pension costs for public sector employees in the state as well as limits their bargaining rights, were part of a larger budget bill passed by the Assembly last month, so final passage of this separate bill in the chamber is considered a foregone conclusion.
The legislation was separated from the budget measure on Wednesday to break a three-week stalemate created when the Democratic senators all went to Illinois to deny the chamber the 20-member quorum required to take up bills that appropriate funds.
The quorum requirement for other kinds of legislation is smaller, and the Republicans’ 19 seats are enough for those measures. In the Assembly, the Republican majority is large enough to achieve a quorum for any kind of bill.
Once the bill was separated, the Republicans pushed the measure through the Senate in less than half an hour by a vote of 18-1, without any debate on the floor or a single Democrat in the room.
Democrats in the State Assembly complained bitterly, and protesters, who had spent many days at the Capitol, continued their chants and jeers.
Within hours of the Senate vote, union leaders from Wisconsin and across the nation condemned the action.
“Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin’s working families in the dark of night,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State A.F.L.-C.I.O.
Mr. Neuenfeldt asserted that the Republicans had also violated Wisconsin’s open meetings laws. “Tonight’s events have demonstrated they will do or say anything to pass their extreme agenda,” he said.
Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican whose efforts to diminish collective bargaining rights have placed him firmly in the national spotlight though he has been in office less than three months, applauded the Senate’s move on Wednesday night, and said it brought the state a step closer to balancing its budget.
“The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs,” Mr. Walker said in a statement released minutes after the Senate action, which was not widely expected.
Democrats, meanwhile, condemned the move as an attack on working families, a violation of open-meetings requirements (because most of them were not aware that the vote was to be held until shortly before it happened), and a virtual firebomb in a state already polarized and consumed with recall efforts, large-scale protests and fury from public workers.
“In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin,” said Mark Miller, the leader of the Senate Democrats who fled to Illinois on Feb. 17 to block just such a vote from occurring. “Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.”
But Mr. Fitzgerald was unapologetic on Thursday, saying Democrats had behaved unprofessionally.
“Don’t let their complete absence fool you; the Senate Democrats forced that vote yesterday,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “They forced it three weeks ago, when they abandoned their jobs and fled to Illinois for a long-term vacation.”
He added: “And today, they’re ‘shocked’ that a decision was made without them in the room. Yesterday’s actions shouldn’t surprise anyone, much less any parent in Wisconsin. We know that sometimes, throwing a fit doesn’t get you what you want.” The Democrats however complained angrily that the manner of the move directly contradicted what the Republicans had contended all along: that collective bargaining rights had to be cut not for philosophical reasons but merely for financial ones, to fix the state’s budget gap.
“To pass this the way they did — without 20 senators — is to say that it has no fiscal effect,” said Timothy Cullen, another of the Democratic senators. “It’s admitting that this is simply to destroy public unions.”
A.G. Sulzberger contributed reporting from Madison, Wis., Emma G. Fitzsimmons from Chicago, and Steven Greenhouse and Timothy Williams from New York.