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Wisconsin Dems' filibuster halts anti-union bill

MADISON - Democrats kept the Wisconsin Assembly up overnight with a droning filibuster in another desperate attempt to block the Republican governor's bold plan to strip public sector workers of nearly all of their bargaining rights.

The debate marked the first movement in days in what has become a high-stakes game of political chicken between Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker. The governor says the bill is needed to help solve the state's looming budget deficit, but Democrats see it as an all-out assault on unions, their staunchest campaign ally.

Republicans control both the Assembly and Senate, but Democratic senators have blocked a vote in their chamber by fleeing to Illinois. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of demonstrators have descended on the state Capitol in monumental protests that entered their ninth day Wednesday.

Video: Wis. Dems remain in hiding

The Assembly began debate around noon Tuesday, with lawmakers coming to the floor under heavy guard as protesters in the rotunda cheered and banged on buckets and bongo drums. Democrats began introducing dozens of amendments that would and gave drawn-out, rambling speeches criticizing the bill. A vote didn't appear likely until well into Wednesday, perhaps later.

"Can you hear that?" Rep. Tamara Grigsby, D-Milwaukee, screamed into her microphone. "Can you hear the cheers? Can you hear the chants? Can you hear the voices of the people who elected you? How can you not hear that?"

Republicans sat mostly in silence as the debate dragged into the wee hours, though tempers flared when two Democrats lashed out at Republican lawmakers and aides for laughing at them during the debate.

"This is not a game! We're dealing with people's lives! This isn't funny!" Rep. Andy Jorgensen shouted in the chamber, his face red. "I haven't laughed in a long time, especially not on a day like this!"

At one point, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, stood and told Democrats the state can't afford collective bargaining. Walker's budget, which the governor plans to introduce in the coming weeks, will contain such deep cuts to local governments they won't be able to survive if public workers don't make concessions, Fitzgerald said.

Democrats introduced 42 amendments, about half after midnight, and promised more were on the way. When Democrats offered to adjourn shortly before 3 a.m., Republicans — who easily have enough votes to pass the bill once they dispose of the Democrats' amendments — refused.

"We understand. You don't like the bill. We get it," Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc said. "(But) at the end of the day the vote has got to come, folks."

The bill would require most public sector workers, from local librarians to state biologists, to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance. It also would strip them of their right to collectively bargain anything except salaries. Walker has said the plan is crucial to solving a $137 million deficit in the state's current budget and a $3.6 billion shortfall in the 2011-13 budget.

The state's public unions have said they would agree to the financial concessions, but won't give up their bargaining rights.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations have left the Capitol a mess. The normally sparkling floors are smeared with dirt, protesters' signs cover the marble walls, air mattresses and blankets lay in hallways and state troopers guard every corridor, limiting movement in the building.

Similar battles over union rights are also taking shape in other states. In Indiana, Democrats walked out of the House on Tuesday, blocking a GOP-backed bill against mandatory union dues. They have threatened not to return until Republican lawmakers deliver assurances that they won't move forward on labor legislation.

A similar debate in Ohio drew thousands of union protesters Tuesday, prompting officials there to lock the doors to the Statehouse.