Wisconsin Republicans turned to the state police Friday to find and cajole Democratic lawmakers to return to the Capitol as the battle between a cash-strapped government and an angry unionized workforce continued.
Thousands of protesters were back to demonstrate at the Capitol in Madison, and some testified at committee hearings in the Assembly, which could consider a bill Friday that would end collective bargaining for public employees and force those workers to pick up a share of rising health insurance and pension costs.
The state Senate was forced to adjourn after all 14 Democrats fled on Thursday. Democrats continued their boycott on Friday, prompting Republicans to ask Gov. Scott Walker to send officers to the home of Minority Leader Mark Miller to urge the lawmakers to come back to work.
“It’s outrageous,” Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said of the Democrats on Friday. “They shut down government.”
Senators will remain on call over the weekend, Fitzgerald said, in case a Democrat decides to return and give the Senate a quorum.
Fitzgerald derided the boycott. “I think it’s embarrassing and ridiculous,” he said.
Most Democrats were out of the state, having crossed the border to Illinois in a move reminiscent of other legislative exoduses, such as in 2003 when Democrats left Texas for Oklahoma during a redistricting dispute. Though they were out of the state, Wisconsin Democrats were hardly in hiding, taking to the airwaves to make their case.
“It’s rather interesting that this Republican governor and the Republican Legislature would resort to sending out the state police to round up members, especially when we are trying to protest,” state Sen. Julie Lassa said in a telephone interview with MSNBC. The lawmaker said she was not worried about the police finding the lawmakers, and repeated the Democrats’ position that they were trying to slow down the legislative process to allow time to study the governor’s proposals.
Walker on Friday defended his plan, designed to cut benefits and clip the wings of the unions in what is generally regarded as a pro-union state.
“This is a bold political move, but it is a modest request of our employees,” Walker said on CBS’ “Morning Show” Friday.
“The people who are here, the thousands of protesters, union protesters … have a right to be heard, but the millions and millions of taxpayers in the state have a right to be heard as well,” he said.
Walker’s proposal would not apply to police, firefighters or state troopers. But it would require all other state workers to pay half their pension costs and 12.6% of their healthcare coverage, shaving an estimated $330 million off a $3.6-billion deficit. It would also prevent public workers from receiving raises above the inflation rate unless the increases were put to a vote.
Walker has promised that, should the measure pass, no public workers would be laid off. On the flip side, he has noted that failure to pass his measure could prompt thousands of layoffs.
But what is especially galling to many protesters is the provision that would end collective bargaining for public employees. Wisconsin in 1959 was the first state to give all public-sector workers collective-bargaining rights, and most states have followed suit. Only 12 states deny public workers the right to collective bargaining.
But as the recession worsened and the recovery has remained tepid, states and other municipalities have become increasingly squeezed by rising healthcare costs and pension benefits for their unionized workers. Politicians often cannot seek tax increases to pay for benefits more lucrative than those enjoyed by voters.
From California to New York, and especially in states like New Jersey and Ohio, similar calls for municipal frugality have been washing up against union anger. Wisconsin was just the first state where it has led to legislative paralysis.
Demonstrators continued their rally on Friday, and Republicans in the Legislature said they expected the protest to continue through Saturday.
Among the speakers to the protesters on Friday was Rev. Jesse Jackson, who waded into the crowd. Jackson’s appearance appeared to invigorate the protesters, who clamored for handshakes and pictures and burst into “We Shall Overcome.”
“Collective bargaining has made America great,” Jackson said to a momentarily hushed crowd. “We will not surrender. This land is our land.”
The battle in Wisconsin has also become a mirror for the national debate over government finances now being waged in Washington.
President Obama said this week that he understood the need to make cuts, but was concerned about the Wisconsin situation.
“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeated Obama’s concerns to reporters on Air Force One on Friday.
Obama “is very understanding of the need for state governments, governors, state legislatures to reduce spending, to be -- to make tough choices, to be fiscally responsible. He’s doing that at the federal level, and he understands that states need to do that at the state level. But he also feels very strongly that we need not to make this an assault on the collective bargaining rights of workers in a given state,” Carney said.
In addition to Obama’s comments this week in a television interview, the president’s grass-roots organization, Organizing for America, has boasted in e-mails and on its website that it is helping mobilize demonstrators in Madison. Organizing for America is part of the Democratic National Committee.
House Speaker John Boehner on Friday criticized Organizing for America’s involvement in the Madison protests. Boehner’s Republicans are fighting with the Democrats about reducing this year’s federal budget and have pledged even more cuts when work begins on Obama’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget.
“This is not the way to begin an ‘adult conversation’ about solutions to the big challenges facing our country,” Boehner said in a statement. “Rather [than] inciting protests against those who speak honestly about the challenges we face, the president and his advisors should lead.”
Boehner went on to say the protests were “fueled by President Obama’s own political machine,” a reference to Organizing for America.
Walker has urged the president to stay out of Wisconsin affairs.
“I think we’re focused on balancing our budget,” he said on Fox News Friday morning. “It would be wise for the president and others in Washington to focus on balancing their budget, which they are a long ways from doing.”
Hinkel reported from Madison, Wis., and Muskal from Los Angeles