Faced with a near-certain Republican victory that would end a half-century of collective bargaining for public workers, Wisconsin Democrats retaliated with the only weapon they had left: They fled.
Fourteen Democratic lawmakers disappeared from the Capitol on Thursday, just as the Senate was about to begin debating the measure aimed at easing the state’s budget crunch.
By refusing to show up for a vote, the group brought the debate to a swift halt and hoped to pressure Republicans to the negotiating table.
“The plan is to try and slow this down, because it’s an extreme piece of legislation that’s tearing this state apart,“ Sen. Jon Erpenbach said.
The move drew cheers from tens of thousands of protesters — teachers, prison guards and other public employees targeted by the proposal — who filled the Statehouse during the past three days.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who took office just last month, has made the bill a top priority. He urged the group to return and called the boycott a “stunt.”
“It’s more about theatrics than anything else,” Walker said, predicting that the group would come back in a day or two, after realizing “they’re elected to do a job.”
Walker said Democrats could still offer amendments to change the bill, but he vowed not to concede on his plan to end most collective-bargaining rights.
Sen. Tim Cullen of Janesville said he was back in Wisconsin on Thursday night, but he did not expect Democrats to return to take up the bill until Saturday.
With 19 seats, Republicans hold a majority in the 33-member Senate, but they are one vote short of the number needed to conduct business. So the GOP needs at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. Once the measure is brought to the floor, it needs 17 votes to pass.
Other lawmakers who fled sent messages over Twitter and issued written statements but did not disclose their location until hours later.
Erpenbach said the group had been in Rockford, Ill., but they dispersed by late afternoon.
As Republicans tried to begin Senate business Thursday, observers in the gallery screamed “Freedom! Democracy! Unions!” Opponents cheered when a legislative leader announced there were not enough senators present to proceed.
The sergeant-at-arms immediately began looking for the missing lawmakers. If he cannot find them, he’s authorized to seek help, including potentially contacting police.
Elsewhere, some Democrats applauded the developments in Wisconsin as a long-awaited sign that their party was fighting back against the Republican wave created by November’s midterm election.
“I am glad to see some Democrats, for a change, with a backbone. I’m really proud to hear that they did that,” said Democratic state Sen. Judy Eason-McIntyre of Oklahoma, another state where Republicans won the governorship in November and also control both legislative chambers.
Across the Wisconsin Statehouse, Democrats showed up in the Assembly chamber wearing orange T-shirts that proclaimed their support for working families.
After a routine roll call, they exchanged high-fives with protesters, who cried “thank you” as the Democrats walked by. Protesters unleashed venomous boos and screams at Republicans.
The drama in Wisconsin unfolded in a jam-packed Capitol. Madison police and the State Department of Administration estimated the crowd at 25,000 protesters.
Protesters clogged the hallway outside the Senate chamber, beating on drums, holding signs deriding Walker and pleading for lawmakers to kill the bill. Some others even demonstrated outside lawmakers’ homes.
Hundreds of teachers joined the protest by calling in sick, forcing a number of school districts to cancel classes. Madison schools, the state’s second-largest district, with 24,000 students, closed for a second day.
The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective-bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all nonfederal public employees.
In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health-care coverage — increases Walker calls “modest” compared with those in the private sector.