Is a deal brewing in Wisconsin union dispute?

Wisconsin, protests
Protesters line up to get inside the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Saturday, March 5, 2011, on the 18th day of demonstrations over the governor's proposed budget that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers.
AP Photo/Andy Manis

Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET

Wisconsin Democratic senators want to meet in person with Republican Gov. Scott Walker, as well as the Republican state senate leader, as soon as possible, they said in a letter sent to the governor today.

The Democratic lawmakers fled to Illinois on Feb. 17 to stall the passage of Walker's so-called "budget repair bill," which would, among other things, scale back public workers' benefits, as well as their collective bargaining rights. With Republicans in the majority, the bill was sure to pass, so the Democrats fled to deprive the state senate of the quorum needed to pass the bill.

In the weeks since, there have been massive protests at the state capitol building in Madison, and serious recall efforts have been launched -- against all 16 state senators (eight Republicans and eight Democrats) legally vulnerable to a recall this year.

Walker has been negotiating with the Democratic senators through two staff members, according to the Wall Street Journal. Wisconsin Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller said over the weekend the Democrats may be willing to return to Wisconsin soon, even if it means letting the budget repair bill pass, the Journal reports. A spokesman for Miller, Mike Browne, also told the New York Times there had been a "setback" in negotiations with the governor.

However, Browne told the Times, "I don't think anyone is willing to throw in the towel yet."

Today's letter indicates Miller still wants to negotiate.

"I assure you that Democratic State Senators, despite our differences and the vigorous debate we have had, remain ready and willing to find a reasonable compromise," Miller wrote. "To that end, I would ask that you or your authorized representatives agree to meet with us near the Wisconsin-Illinois border to formally resume serious discussions as soon as possible. The people of Wisconsin are overwhelmingly supportive of us reaching a bipartisan, negotiated compromise. Senate Democrats stand ready to do just that, we ask that you do the same."

Two other Democratic state senators yesterday downplayed Miller's comments to the Wall Street Journal, reports. Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said the lawmakers are not yet preparing to return to Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Journal that the budget repair bill can't be amended at this point, but the legislature could make some adjustments to Walker's budget proposal.

"The collective-bargaining piece has to pass," he said. "If it doesn't the governor's budget doesn't work."

Unions have agreed to scaling back their benefits but argue that restricting collective bargaining rights won't impact the budget.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Democratic Party on Monday announced plans to file a formal complaint accusing Walker of state ethics and campaign finance violations, in connection with a "prank" phone call the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

Late last month, a liberal blogger called Walker and convinced the governor he was speaking with billionaire conservative David Koch. The Democratic Party is expected to give details of its complaint later today.

UPDATE: At a press conference today, Walker called Miller's request for a meeting at the Wisconsin-Illinois border "ridiculous" and charged that Miller is "the person standing in the way of progress," reports.

Walker and Fitzgerald, the Republican state Senate leader, said at the press conference they have met with "reasonable" state Senate Democrats, only to have Miller nix potential compromises. They did not offer details on these possible compromises.

Democratic state Sen. Bob Jauch said in response to the governor's press conference that Walker was distorting the truth and that Miller never undercut any potential compromises, according to

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald, the Republican leader, sent a letter to Miller today, in response to Miller's letter, calling the whole situation "bizarre." He wrote that Miller gave up his opportunity to compromise when he fled the state.

"Your stubbornness in trying to ignore the last election and protect the broken status quo is truly shameful," he wrote. "While we wait for you and your colleagues to finally show up, Senate Republicans continue to stand ready to do the job we were elected to do, here in Wisconsin. I hope you are enjoying your vacation, and your vacation from reality."

The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App