The Wisconsin assembly early Friday passed a bill that would strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights — the first significant action on the new Republican governor's plan.
The vote put an end to three straight days of debate, but the political standoff over the bill is far from over. The measure now goes to the senate, where minority Democrats have been missing for a week, preventing a vote in that chamber.
No one knows when — or if — the senate Democrats will return from their hideout in Illinois. Republicans who control the chamber sent state troopers out looking for them at their homes on Thursday, but they turned up nothing.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's proposal contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million US deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.
The flashpoint is language that would strip almost all public sector workers of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.
Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats.
Unions have said they would be willing to accept a provision that would increase workers' contributions to their pensions and health care, provided they could still bargain collectively. But Walker has refused to compromise.
Tens of thousands of people have jammed the state Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police who are providing security have resorted to ear plugs.
Hundreds have taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.
While senate Democrats fled to prevent a vote, assembly Democrats had been filibustering.
After more than 60 hours in which Democrats threw out dozens of amendments and delivered rambling speeches, Republicans halted debate early Friday. In a matter of seconds, they had approved the bill. Only a few Democrats realized what was going on and managed to vote before the roll was closed.
The Democrats rose from their seats and rushed at the Republicans shouting, "Shame!" as the Republicans exited the chamber.
"I'm incensed. I'm shocked," said Democratic Representative John Richards. "What a terrible, terrible day for Wisconsin."
Walker issued a statement Friday praising the assembly for passing the bill and renewing his call for senate Democrats to return.
"The fourteen senate Democrats need to come home and do their jobs, just like the assembly Democrats did," Walker said.
The governor has said that if the bill does not pass by Friday, the state will miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt and will be forced to start issuing layoff notices next week.
However, the deadline may not be as strict as he says.
The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed back as late as Tuesday to achieve the savings Walker wants. Based on a similar refinancing in 2004, about two weeks are needed after the bill becomes law to complete the deal. That means if the bill is adopted by the middle of next week, the state can still meet a March 16 deadline, the Fiscal Bureau said.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he and his colleagues wouldn't return until Walker compromised.