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Wisconsin protests continue as Dems leave state to stall "budget-repair" vote

Wisconsin, protests
Appleton West High School students protest in support of their teachers on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. Teachers and labor supporters swarmed entrances to the Senate chambers at the Wisconsin Capitol Thursday in an attempt to stop lawmakers from passing a bill that would strip most public employees of nearly all collective bargaining rights. AP Photo/The Post-Crescent, Sharon Cekada

Updated at 7:15 p.m. ET

Intense protests continued in Wisconsin today as Democratic state lawmakers stalled a vote on Gov. Scott Walker's highly controversial budget bill, which would strip most public workers of nearly all union bargaining rights.

Walker's "budget repair bill" faced imminent passage in the Republican-led legislature today, but Democratic state senators decided to flee the state in a "boycott" of the vote, depriving the state Senate of the quorum needed to pass the bill. Republican lawmakers said they called the police to bring the Democratic senators back to work, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.

"I think they're all out of state. I am anyway," Democratic state Sen. Tim Cullen told the Journal Sentinel.

State Sen. Jon Erpenbach said the lawmakers had been in Rockford, Ill., according to the Associated Press, but have since dispersed. They're still outside of Wisconsin, however.

Walker urged the group of Democrats to come back and called the boycott a "stunt," the AP reports. "It's more about theatrics than anything else," he said, predicting they'd be back within a day or two.

Democrats were "not showing up for work," Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a press conference today, according to the Journal Sentinel. "That's not democracy. That's not what this chamber is about."

Walker's proposal would require state workers to pay for half of their pension costs, and it would more than double their health care contributions. It would strip public worker unions of their ability to negotiate pensions, working conditions or benefits. Any wage increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index, and unions would lose their ability to have dues deducted from state paychecks. The changes would apply to all state workers except police, firefighters and state troopers.

The changes are part of Walker's efforts to deal with the state's $137 million 2011 budget shortfall, as well as the state deficit, which swells to more than $3 billion over the next two years. The cuts to benefits would save the state nearly $330 million through mid-2013, according to the Journal Sentinel.

"The bottom line is the state's broke," Walker said on Fox News on Tuesday. "What we're asking for... is a small fraction of what most of our workers in the state our doing... We think that's a reasonable way to balance the budget without raising taxes."

Walker said today Democrats could offer amendments to the bill, but he added he will not concede on the issue to end most union bargaining rights, the AP reports.

Wisconsin, protests
Protestors to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers demonstrate in the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. AP Photo/Andy Manis

The proposal has left Wisconsin's 175,000 public workers furious, prompting massive protests. Schools across Madison and other parts of the state were closed Wednesday and Thursday after teachers called in sick to show their opposition to the measure. Those teachers, other union workers and their supporters have converged on the state capitol this week to protest.

Madison police and the State Department of Administration said the crowd at the capitol was at its largest today, the AP reports, with about 25,000 people protesting. After the state Senate convened Thursday morning, the legislative body was disrupted by protesters in the gallery shouting, "Freedom, democracy, unions," the Journal Sentinel reports.

Some, including President Obama, perceive the move as part of a greater Republican effort across the nation to vilify public workers and unions.

"Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions," Mr. Obama said in an interview Wednesday with local television station WTMJ-TV. "And I think it's very important for us to understand that public employees, they're our neighbors, they're our friends... And I think it's important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees."

Walker said on Fox that he's not trying to vilify public workers.

"This is not to say we do not have good and decent people working in state government," he said. His plan, he said, "is bold and big when it comes to politics, but I think ultimately pretty modest when you compare to where people are in the private sector today."

In a statement today, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) praised Walker, and like-minded Govs. John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey, for "daring to speak the truth about the dire fiscal challenges Americans face at all levels of government."

Their solutions, he said, "will liberate our economy and help put our citizens on a path to prosperity."

Boehner said he was "disappointed" in Mr. Obama for his response to the conflict in Wisconsin.

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