Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker excoriated Democratic state senators on Sunday for “walking out on their job” in an effort to thwart his attempts to rein in unions, saying the missing lawmakers should return to the state Capitol in Madison if they want to participate in democracy.
The political stakes also escalated Sunday when the top Republican in the state Senate threatened to reconvene Tuesday and start passing bills in the Democrats’ absence.
Mr. Walker, who was just elected in November, said a proposal that would do away with most of public union employees’ collective-bargaining rights is essential to closing a $3.6 billion long-term budget shortfall.
“We’re broke,” Mr. Walker, a former Milwaukee County executive, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s about time somebody stood up and told the truth, and the only way for us to balance the budget, not only at the state level, but at the local level, is to make sure we give those local governments the tools they need to balance the budget, and that’s what we’re proposing.”
Mr. Walker said the Senate bill, which would also require government workers to pay a bigger share of their health care and pension costs, would prevent layoffs of up to 6,000 state employees.
The measure has sparked a high-profile political showdown at the Wisconsin state Capitol, where thousands of union supporters and tea party activists have been bused in to protest against or in favor of it.
Schools have been closed as teachers call in “sick” en masse, and even President Obama has weighed in, describing the proposal as an “assault” on workers’ rights.
On Sunday, Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, told reporters in Madison that she was calling on teachers to leave the Capitol and return to their classrooms for the next schoolday — Monday or Tuesday, depending on whether the district closes for Presidents’ Day.
National lawmakers have likewise waded into the fight. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, defended union protesters Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“There is a much bigger issue at stake here,” Mr. Durbin said. “For over 80 years in America, we have recognized the rights of our workers to freely gather together, collectively bargain so that they could have fairness in the workplace and fairness in compensation. And that is what’s at stake here. It goes way beyond this budget issue.”
Republicans in Wisconsin have the votes to pass the bill, but they need at least one of 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state to return so that a legislative quorum of 20 senators — the chamber has 19 Republicans — can be reached and a vote taken. The Democratic lawmakers have threatened to stay away for weeks, saying the ball is in Mr. Walker’s court.
However, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told the Associated Press on Sunday that lawmakers are not going to stand around “twiddling their thumbs” until the Democrats return.
Mr. Fitzgerald said he will call his chamber into session Tuesday and start voting on non-spending bills and gubernatorial appointments — types of votes that require only a 17-member majority to vote on and, with only Republicans in the chamber, presumably pass.
The governor has refused offers of compromise and Sunday reiterated his call for the Democrats to return and do their job.
“Democracy’s not about hiding out in another state,” he said. “It’s about showing up here in the capital and making the case there.”
Mr. Walker said local government officials have long been asking for the rights of unions to be curtailed so that they can make cuts that are required to balance county budgets.
Asked by Fox host Chris Wallace whether he’s engaged in “union-busting,” Mr. Walker said “absolutely not,” noting that many private-sector employees would love to have the deal that public workers are getting.
If the Democrats continue to hide out, Mr. Walker said, he’s “going to look at every option.”
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