Wisconsin Assembly Rams Through Walker's Budget Bill

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 9:59 AM EST

It was an ugly end to 61 hours of debate and deliberation. After days of Democrats attacking Republicans and Republicans attacking Democrats, hundreds of amendments being offered, and Democrats using every move in the book to delay a vote, the Wisconsin state Assembly finally voted on Republican Governor Scott Walker's controversial "budget repair bill," which would gut collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions, among other things. In the end, the final vote was 51 to 17, with 28 members—25 Democrats, two GOPers, and one independent—not even voting.

Why? Here's how it went down. A shade after 1 a.m. on Friday morning, the Assembly speaker pro tempore suddenly cut off the debate and demanded a vote. Then the voting window was opened for just a few seconds, long enough for a GOP majority to cast its votes and approve the bill. The moment the vote ended, the Republicans picked up and headed for the door. The move stunned the Democrats in the Assembly, leaving them livid. Some Democrats yelled "Shame!" and "Cowards!" at their Republican counterparts; others hurled papers into the air; one even threw a drink.

The whole thing caught Assembly Democrats by surprise. For one, they still had 15 speakers on deck to debate the bill. Republicans also failed to invoke the traditional motion and roll call used when signaling that the debate is over and it's time to vote.

The post-vote comments by Democrats hid none of their anger. "What a sad day for this state when we are willing to ignore the traditions that people died for in this state, that people fought bitterly for," said Rep. Peter Barca, a Democrat. "We ignore our forefathers who made this a great state." Said Democratic Rep. Kelda Helen Roys: "We never imagined they would do it as they did, not even properly using the nuclear option."

Mike Tate, the chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement, "Under cover of darkness, in a practice that Scott Walker denounced while he was campaigning for governor, the Republicans of the Wisconsin Assembly sold their soul. Upending seven decades of labor peace and putting Wisconsin up for sale to the likes of their Koch Brothers masters, they voted to sanction the most divisive piece of legislation in our state's history."

Republicans saw nothing wrong with the move, which they say brought an end to days' worth of delay. "In the end, we're going to head the state in the right direction," said Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, the speaker of the Assembly.

Of course, the fight is only half over. The state Senate now takes up the bill. But with that chamber's 14 Democrats still in hiding—their "filibuster on feet," as one senator called it—it's unclear if or when the senate will take up the bill. Democrats say they have no plans to return anytime soon, not until Gov. Walker relents and throws out his ban on collective bargaining. "I'm not paid to be their rubber stamp," Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat, told me last night. "I'm not elected to be their rubber stamp."

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