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Wis. Assembly passes bill taking away union rights

Todd Richmond

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early Friday morning to shouts of "Shame!" from disgruntled Democrats.

The vote ended three straight days of punishing debate in the Assembly. But the political standoff over the bill _ and the monumental protests at the state Capitol against it _ appear far from over.

The Assembly's vote sent the bill on to the Senate, but minority Democrats in that house have fled to Illinois to prevent a vote. No one knows when they will return from hiding. Republicans who control the chamber sent state troopers out looking for them at their homes on Thursday, but they turned up nothing.

"This kind of solidifies our resolve," Democratic Sen. Chris Larson said Friday after the Assembly vote. "If we come back, they're going to ram this through without us having a say."

Republican Gov. Scott Walker issued a statement Friday praising the Assembly for passing the bill and renewing his call for Senate Democrats to return.

"The fourteen Senate Democrats need to come home and do their jobs, just like the Assembly Democrats did," Walker said.

Walker's plan contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.

The flashpoint is language that would require public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and strip them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.

Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.

Tens of thousands of people have jammed the Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.

Similar moves to restrict union bargaining rights have been proposed in other states where Republicans sit in the governor's mansion and newly empowered members of the party took control of state legislatures in November's elections.

The Republicans insist there is no choice but to rein in the public sector unions and limit their bargaining rights to bring state spending under control and to begin whittling away at huge deficits that were made far worse in the recent recession _ the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the other side, unions and their members say conservative politicians are trying to balance budgets on the backs of the middle class and are out to kill the already struggling U.S. labor movement. Union backing will be critical to Obama's 2012 re-election effort, and he and his Democrats can little afford to see organized labor further diminished at a time when a recent Supreme Court decision has opened up the floodgates to corporate political donations.

In Madison, tens of thousands of people have jammed the Wisconsin Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.

With the Senate immobilized, Assembly Republicans decided to act and convened the chamber Tuesday morning.

Democrats launched a filibuster, throwing out dozens of amendments and delivering rambling speeches. Each time Republicans tried to speed up the proceedings, Democrats rose from their seats and wailed that the Republicans were stifling them.

Debate had gone on for 60 hours and 15 Democrats were still waiting to speak when the vote started around 1 a.m. Friday. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer opened the roll and closed it within seconds.

Democrats looked around, bewildered. Only 13 of the 38 Democratic members managed to vote in time.

Republicans immediately marched out of the chamber in single file. The Democrats rushed at them, pumping their fists and shouting "Shame!" and "Cowards!"

The Republicans walked past them without responding.

Democrats left the chamber stunned. The protesters greeted them with a thundering chant of "Thank you!" Some Democrats teared up. Others hugged.

"What a terrible, terrible day for Wisconsin," said Democratic Rep. Jon Richards. "I am incensed. I am shocked."

Republican leaders in the Assembly refused to speak with reporters, but earlier Friday morning Majority Leader Scott Suder warned Democrats that they had been given 59 hours to be heard and Republicans were ready to vote.

The governor has said that if the bill does not pass by Friday, the state will miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt and will be forced to start issuing layoff notices next week. However, the deadline may not as strict as he says.

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Friday that the Assembly's passage of the bill did not change Senate Democrats' intent to stay away.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed back as late as Tuesday to achieve the savings Walker wants.

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Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.

The Associated Press