Senate Republicans in Wisconsin used a surprise legislative maneuver to advance a bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from most public sector workers — a move accomplished without the presence of 14 Democratic senators who had fled the state to stall the measure.
Republicans voted 18-1 Wednesday night to pass the nonfiscal provisions of the budget-repair bill — including those that would eliminate or severely limit collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
By removing the nonfinancial provisions, Republicans were able to bypass a requirement that a quorum be present to vote on fiscal bills. When 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois on Feb. 17, they denied the Republican majority a quorum and stymied action on the initiative.
The fight over the legislation in Madison, the state capital, has drawn national attention, with unions calling it an attack on all organized labor and some GOP lawmakers and governors calling it a necessary step to control state spending.
The amended bill will go back to the Republican-controlled state Assembly for a vote Thursday morning. The Assembly had already passed the bill prior to the changes.
Senate Republicans assembled a conference committee Wednesday to address the changes in the budget-repair bill and then quickly moved on to a vote of the Senate. With no Democrats present, Republican Sen. Dale Schultz cast the only dissenting vote.
In a statement, Schultz said he had spent the past four weeks working for compromise.
"Ultimately, I voted my conscience which I feel reflects the core beliefs of the majority of voters who sent me here to represent them," he said.
Rep. Donna Seidel, assistant minority leader in the Assembly, said the move caught Democrats "totally and completely off guard." "In 30 minutes, the 18 Republican senators stripped away 50 years of worker rights," she said.
The measure is almost guaranteed to pass the Republican-majority Assembly, but Democrats were not ready to give up the fight, and Seidel said Democrats intend to take the fight to the courts.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca decried the hastily convened conference session as a violation of the state's open meetings law, which generally requires 24 hours' notice, and a minimum of two hours, for meetings.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald did not respond to a request for comment.
At the brief and contentious conference session where Barca was the only Democrat present, he told Fitzgerald, "Mr. Chairman, this is a violation of law! This is not just a rule — this is the law."
Gov. Scott Walker issued a statement praising the Republicans' action.
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," the governor said.