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Rep. Peter Barca, center, and other legislators watch police remove protesters from the Assembly chamber galleries at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday.

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

The state Assembly passed, on a party-line vote, a bill to make Wisconsin a right-to-work state on Friday morning after a 24-hour session.

Debate on final passage began at 8 a.m., with 30 minutes of debate reserved for each party.

Long after the sun was replaced by a full moon — and still after the sun returned — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle gave impassioned speeches for and against the bill, which would prevent businesses from entering contracts with unions requiring all workers to pay union fees.

"We’re fighting for the right of every single worker in the state to have their own personal liberty," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, during the final moments of debate.

Appeals ranged from serious to silly as lawmakers invoked films, scripture, civil rights leaders and past presidents to bolster their points. Rep. Mandela Barnes, D-Milwaukee, even sneaked some Bon Jovi lyrics into a speech around 5 a.m.

By 9 p.m., Democrats had 10 amendments in the queue, despite multiple assurances from Vos that they would all be rejected. Vos accused the minority party of engaging in delay tactics, but Democrats insisted their amendments were efforts to make more palatable a bill they say would irreparably damage the state.

But by 7 a.m., only one amendment had been discussed, and none had been voted on. Reps. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, and Cory Mason, D-Racine, each gave speeches that topped the hour mark while debating a proposal to send the bill to the Small Business Committee.

Just before 7:30 a.m., Vos voiced his disappointment with Democrats for spending nearly 11 hours debating the referral proposal. He said he'd expected to discuss their amendments and to spend significant time debating the merits of the bill.

"I'm disappointed, and the people of Wisconsin should be disappointed in the delaying tactics (of the Democrats)," Vos said.

The Assembly then began debating amendments.

Democrats say right-to-work legislation drives down wages and weakens workers' rights. Republicans arguing in favor of the bill present it as an issue of worker freedom and individual liberty. 

"Ideas have power, and there are no ideas with greater power than the idea of freedom," said Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson.

Rep. Jesse Kremer, R-Kewaskum, spoke favorably of his past experiences with unions, and said as recently as 2010 he voted to bring a union into a non-union workplace. But right-to-work, he added, is "about God-given freedoms."

Around 3:30 a.m., Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, gave an emotional speech about his family, focusing on his father's job as a garbage man. He talked about the important role unions have played in his family, and how he came to be a Republican.

"Unions and freedom and liberty can sit side by side," Kooyenga said.

On several occasions, Democrats accused the majority party of bowing to special interests and ignoring the will of the people, citing strong turnout against the bill in public hearings this week and last.

Some Democrats suggested the bill is a vehicle for Gov. Scott Walker — either to distract from his biennial budget or to boost a presidential bid.

Walker said this week he plans to sign the bill by Monday, making Wisconsin the 25th state to enact such a law.

"I don’t know how many slings and arrows the middle class can take from Scott Walker in his ideological crusade to win the Republican nomination," Mason said.

But Knudson said if it had been up to Walker, the bill wouldn't even be on the floor. And after the bill was passed, Vos said the governor didn't "actively advocate" for the legislation.

Walker for months declared right-to-work a "distraction" and not a priority, saying as recently as September 2014, "I'm not supporting it in this session."

But on Wednesday, Walker said "the reason why we brought that up" is because looking at rankings provided by publications like Chief Executive magazine and speaking with site selectors — particularly those in manufacturing — "one of the things that’s always on their checklist is where you stand in terms of freedom to work legislation."

Knudson held that Democrats would not make his party "feel ashamed."

Jabs between parties were sharp at times.

"That's what you're all about, you're all about the freedom to choose," said Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh. "I would expect many of your members will be voting green (in favor of the bill)."

At one point, Barnes said he hoped Republicans would continue their narrative in support of individual choice when the Legislature takes up a 20-week abortion ban, which Walker has also promised to sign.

After Democrats introduced the proposal to refer the bill to the Small Business Committee, Vos said the minority party's claims to be standing up for small businesses nearly made him "ill."

"But where did this come from? Who sponsored this bill? Where are our leaders to clean up this great spill?" Doyle quipped. "Then off in Iowa our governor did appear, saying send me this bill, I’ll sign it right here!"

Despite convening at 9 a.m. Thursday, the Assembly did not start debating the right-to-work bill itself until shortly before 2 p.m. Much of the morning was spent in partisan caucus, and the debate was paused over the noon hour for the annual State of the Tribes address.

Prior to the State of the Tribes, Democrats introduced a resolution to honor pro-union protesters and apologize to them for comments made by Gov. Scott Walker last week suggesting that combating protesters has prepared him to handle Islamic State terrorists. That resolution was defeated on a party-line vote.

While that resolution was discussed, Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, told Democrats it wasn't the time to revisit the days of Act 10.

Jagler accused Democrats of "chasing the dragon," not acknowledging the drug-use connotations of the phrase. It became a recurring theme throughout the debate.

"Gentleman from the 37th: Chasing the dragon, that's exactly what I feel like," Vos said later, referring to the early discussion that focused heavily on the 2011 labor protests.

Jagler later tweeted that he was not unaware of the connotation.

"I knew. Was using it as a metaphor," he tweeted.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the dragon returned.

"We are not chasing the dragon, we're chasing the truth," said Assembly Assistant Minority Leader Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.

Barnes and Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, also both referenced chasing dragons in overnight speeches.

No observers sat in the gallery for the majority of the session. The viewing area was cleared after a disruption from protesters just before 2 p.m.

Protesters then gathered for some time outside the chamber and in front of the governor's office, but the Capitol was mostly clear as the evening wore on.

"We should all be at home snuggled up in our beds, with thoughts of bipartisanship dancing in our heads," Doyle said in his speech. "But as it sits now, there’s no end in sight. Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, it’s going to be a long night."

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.

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