More cops at the Capitol (2/22/11)
Law enforcement officers man several levels of the state Capitol after an overnight sleep-in by opponents of Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill. JOHN HART - State Journal

The state Assembly convened Tuesday with a prayer.

Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan, prayed that the people of Wisconsin “recognize our diversity as a treasure” and respect that everyone is “passionate about our beliefs.”

As she spoke, drumbeats and muffled chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” from thousands of protesters packing the state Capitol rotunda echoed through the Assembly chamber.

Lawmakers headed into what is sure to be a heated and marathon-length debate over Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill at about high noon. The bill would dramatically cut collective bargaining rights and bring sweeping changes to Medicaid.

The session got off to a cordial start, with Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, getting a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans alike for saying the last week of protests have been “a powerful testament to the people of Wisconsin.

But then things quickly got ugly. Barca shouted that Republicans were willing to “trample our democracy,” referring to a Friday vote to advance the controversial bill taken by Assembly Republicans before Democrats reached the chamber, and before the 5 p.m. session was set to begin. He accused the GOP of failing to recognize him once he rushed to the floor and violating the state’s open meetings law.

Republicans have agreed to strike the vote from the record and move the bill back to the amendable stage.

Calling it an “outrage” and a “stain on this body,” Barca warned he would push to have Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, removed if Republicans violated any more laws.

Republicans fired back, accusing him and the Democrats of hypocrisy and stall tactics.

“You want to talk about illegal actions,” said Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon. “Let’s talk about the Senate Democrats’ illegal actions.”

The 14 Senate Democrats are still in hiding after fleeing to Illinois last week to deny the Senate a quorum and stop Walker’s bill from passing. They have not yet returned and say they are prepared to stay away as long as necessary. The stalemate has almost brought state government screeching to a halt as thousands of people have come to the Capitol to protest for more than a week.

It’s been an incredibly loud week at the Capitol, but things got quite loud inside the Assembly chamber Tuesday.

Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, said he didn’t know what Republicans “wouldn’t do to pass this bill” and accused them of playing with people’s lives. And he said he wants Kramer removed from his post.

“You’re taking people’s rights away, and you attempted to steal my vote,” Jorgensen said.

At one point, things got so loud that Rep. Steve Kestell, R-Elkhart Lake, urged members to use “inside voices” to debate the proposal.

Walker and Republicans have repeatedly said the bill is needed to help them fix a $137 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year and as much as $3.6 billion over the next two years.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, moved forward on other, non-fiscal proposals that don’t require 20 members to be present, including another controversial bill that would require voters to show photo identification in order to register to vote or cast a ballot. A Senate committee is scheduled to vote on the measure later today.

And the governor is preparing for his first “fireside chat” at 6 p.m., saying he wants to speak directly to the people of Wisconsin. The speech will be broadcast on WisconsinEye.org and several TV networks.

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