With the state Senate at an impasse over his temporary budget fix, and tens of thousands of protesters clogging the Capitol day after day, Gov. Scott Walker has pushed back his planned introduction of a new two-year budget from Tuesday to March 1.
The Senate briefly went into session Friday afternoon to give Walker an additional week to present his budget, which reportedly contains large cuts to K-12 education and aid to local governments.
The governor still plans to go ahead with his budget address in Fitchburg on Tuesday, however, said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who urged senators to attend "if they feel safe doing so."
It was unclear where the speech would be delivered. Marjorie Stieve, marketing services manager for Vita Plus, the livestock feed manufacturer where the speech had been planned, said she had been informed that Tuesday's event would no longer take place.
Stieve said she did not know if the rescheduled speech would be at the business.
Fitzgerald denied rumors that some of the 19 Republican senators could be rethinking their support of Walker's budget repair bill in the face of massive protests that have built in size all week.
National labor figures descended on the Capitol Friday, where they were joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who arrived around noon. Speaking to a near-capacity crowd from the second level of the Capitol rotunda, he led protesters in chants of "Save the teachers. Save the children." Protesters swayed as Jackson led them in a rendition of the song, "We Shall Overcome."
"If we can find the money to bail out wealthy businessmen, we can bail out Madison, Wisconsin!" Jackson yelled, to thunderous applause from the crowd, many of them clad in Badger red.
Even bigger crowds are expected Saturday, when rallies for and against Walker's proposal to strip most public employees of bargaining rights are planned.
Fitzgerald predicted the public would soon grow weary of the protests and would turn against the 14 Democratic senators who walked out of the Senate on Thursday, denying the body of the quorum needed to vote on Walker's bill. The 14 have fled to Illinois, where they are outside the jurisdiction of state authorities who could compel them to return.
"If anything, what's going on around this building is galvanizing the (Republican) caucus," the Senate leader said."There's nobody in this caucus that's softening."
Asked whether any Democratic senators appeared ready to compromise with Walker and the Republicans, Fitzgerald said he's been unable to reach anyone except Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, D-Monona. That conversation Thursday lasted 20 seconds, he said.
Earlier Friday, state troopers were dispatched to Miller's home after Fitzgerald said he had been led to believe the Democratic leader was there. But no one answered the door.
"I am starting to hold Senator Miller responsible for this. He is the leader, elected by his members," Fitzgerald said.
On Thursday, Miller said that the senators will return when the governor ends his bid to curb collective bargaining powers for state and local employees and sits down with union leaders. "We just hope cooler heads prevail," he said.
All 14 Democratic senators walked out on Thursday's planned session, spending at least part of the day at the Clock Tower Resort in Rockford, Ill.
The lawmakers then spent the afternoon in a cat-and-mouse game with members of the media, sometimes speaking by cell phone but not revealing their locations. The move stalled the vote, and the Senate adjourned Thursday afternoon without taking up the matter.
If Republicans can get at least one of the Democratic senators back into the chamber, they can force a vote that almost certainly would end with passage of Walker's bill, which would strip most collective bargaining rights for nearly all public workers in Wisconsin.
The GOP holds a 19-14 edge in the Senate and a 57-38-1 edge in the Assembly, and Republican leaders say they have the votes to pass the measure.
"Yes, this is a very extreme measure, but after what Walker did, it was our only option," said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, who spoke with the Wisconsin State Journal late Thursday in the lobby of a Chicago hotel where he was planning to spend the night.
Erpenbach called the situation "a little bizarre" and said he'd rather be home in his bed. But he said he's confident he's doing the right thing for his constituents.
"I can tell you I'm clearly representing the majority of my district, based on the contacts I've had with people," he said.
Erpenbach said he didn't know how long he and the 13 other Democrats would hold out, saying a lot is up to Walker. "It's not like we wanted to do this, but we needed to slow this down," he said.
Erpenbach said he was traveling alone and didn't know the precise locations of the others.
Fitzgerald said: "They understand they have us under a barrel, with the 20 votes."
Walker moving ahead
On Thursday, Walker seemed firm in his resolve to push through his bill, and Assembly leaders were preparing to take up the measure Friday.
Walker said the state is broke and has nothing with which to negotiate. And he called on the senators to return to Madison.
"Their actions, by leaving the state and hiding from voting, are disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of public employees who showed up to work today and the millions of taxpayers they represent," he said.
Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said it was Republicans who shut down the process by not slowing down to address the public's concerns.
"It was pretty obvious they weren't going to listen to the thousands of people protesting," he said.
Friday marked the fourth day of protests at the Capitol. More than 35,000 union supporters flooded the statehouse in recent days and about 25,000 more showed up Thursday. They packed three floors of the rotunda and surrounded the Senate.
Most protesters came to fight Walker's bid to remove bargaining rights for most of the 175,000 state and local employees, allowing workers to negotiate only over salary. The governor's bill exempts most law enforcement, firefighters and State Patrol troopers from the change.
The protests have garnered national attention. Wisconsin was featured this week on nightly cable shows, including MSNBC's "The Ed Schultz Show." The liberal firebrand filmed in Madison on Thursday to show support for union workers.
Officials in other states also are keeping a close eye on the situation, mainly because they're attempting similar legislative measures in their states. Leaders in Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Tennessee and Michigan are considering limits to public employee pensions and benefits.
Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said he thinks Walker is trying to set a precedent for other conservative governors around the country who hope to strip away workers' rights in their states.
"This is a guy who's trying to change 50 years of history in five days," Tate said. "He won't even sit down at the table with workers."
Stalling for time
The governor's proposal, unveiled Feb. 11 as part of a bill aimed at overcoming a $137 million deficit in the current budget, was expected to pass Thursday.
It is not clear what will happen going forward. Walker said Thursday he expected the senators to spend a couple of days on their "stunt" and then return to the Capitol to do their job.
Wisconsin Democrats are not the first group of legislators to flee their state to stall a vote. In 2003, the Texas House was brought to a standstill for four days when about 50 Democratic representatives left the state to block a Republican-drawn redistricting plan.
The drama here began at 11:30 a.m., when a roll call revealed none of the Senate Democrats were there. Soon after, Republican Senate President Mike Ellis announced a "call of the house" to send officers to force errant Democrats to return to the chamber.
Twenty senators are required to vote on fiscal bills, more than the Republican senators could muster alone.
Assembly Democrats joined the protest Thursday morning, entering the Assembly floor together wearing orange T-shirts reading "Assembly Democrats fighting for working families!" The lawmakers later broke for party meetings.
It's unclear when debate on the bill will actually begin. The Assembly, where the measure is expected to pass, may take up the bill first if the Senate Democrats don't return, according to a spokesman for Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon. Late Thursday night the Assembly recessed until 9 a.m. Friday, meaning they wouldn't act on the bill overnight.
"In the most powerful show of unity in decades, we have joined together to send a powerful message to Gov. Walker and the entire state of Wisconsin," Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement. "We support our teachers, nurses, snow-plow drivers, 911 operators, EMTs and all the working people that keep our great state functioning in both the public and private sectors."