Over the shouts of protesters and outraged Democrats, Republicans in the state Assembly on Thursday pushed through the governor's controversial budget repair bill, leaving one of the most divisive proposals in state history one step from becoming law.
Holding their microphones over their heads and screaming "Shame! Shame!" Democrats accused the GOP of ignoring multiple laws in order to pass the bill and vowed to continue their fight against the measure in court.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called the actions "a mockery of our democracy," and said he believed the vote would not stand. Barca said that in the past month Republicans violated open meetings laws, a court order to open the state Capitol and various rules of the Assembly and Senate — all to advance legislation aimed at busting unions under the guise of balancing the budget.
Gov. Scott Walker plans to sign the legislation, which would effectively end collective bargaining rights for most public employees, "as soon as possible," said his spokesman, Cullen Werwie.
The bill passed the Assembly on a mostly party-line 53-42 vote Thursday afternoon following a chaotic morning at the state Capitol.
In the hour leading up to the meeting, police dragged dozens of resistant protesters from the entrances to the Assembly chamber while many lawmakers struggled to get into the building, which police had locked down due to safety concerns. Rep. David Cullen, D-Milwaukee, said he couldn't get in until he climbed through the window of one of his Democratic colleagues who has an office on the ground floor.
With protesters carried off, police cleared the way for a combative four-hour floor session, in which Democrats first attempted to remove Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, for what Barca called "impaired judgement." It did not pass.
Fitzgerald made it clear from the start that he would allow a few hours of debate so Democrats could speak their minds but planned to pass the bill before nightfall.
"There is not anybody in the country who doesn't know what's in this bill," Fitzgerald said.
State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Republicans did everything they could to find common ground.
"We spent 17 hours listening to public testimony (in committee) and more than 64 hours of debate on the Assembly floor," he said.
It has been more than three weeks since 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois in an effort to deny the Senate the 20-member quorum it needs for fiscal bills and stop passage of the measure. But in a series of parliamentary moves late Wednesday, Republicans secretly stripped fiscal components of the bill and passed it in a conference committee, giving Barca — the only Democratic member of the committee present — only minutes to review the 138-page document. The other Democratic member, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, was in Illinois.
Moments after the committee meeting, and with none of the Democrats present, the Senate adopted the bill 18-1, with only Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, voting no.
The move was a reversal of previous statements by Walker and Republican leaders, who have repeatedly said collective bargaining was linked to balancing the budget and could not be passed without fiscal components. The governor issued at least four press releases in which he detailed what he called the fiscal impacts of collective bargaining on the state and local government.
Walker was not available for comment Thursday, but his spokesman would say only that the bill passed by the Legislature doesn't meet the "narrow definition" of what's considered a fiscal bill.
Several Assembly Democrats challenged that Thursday, saying the legislation still had numerous fiscal components.
They warned Republicans that voters were watching, and accused them of violating open meetings laws and failing to follow a court order lifting restrictions on access to the Capitol.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves," Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, said. "And I swear I don't understand how you walk out of this building with your heads up."
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said the current situation was like living under "junta rules" and predicted the consequences would be losses in future elections. He called the vote a "short-sighted winning of the battle but a losing of the war."
But Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the GOP's actions would show bravery in getting government spending under control.
"It will show to people in Wisconsin and throughout the country that we are not afraid to make hard decisions," he said.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, contended the fight is not over until the governor signs the bill.
Reached on their cell phones Thursday night, Sens. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, and Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, refused to discuss their plans to return to Wisconsin or say which senators were back in the state.
"We're still looking at our options," Erpenbach said. "There is a lot of confusion."