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.
The Assembly debate began 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 introduced dozens of amendments and gave drawn-out, rambling speeches criticizing the bill. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said around 8 a.m. Wednesday - after 20 hours of debate - that he was working with Democratic leaders to take a vote on passing the bill by the end of the day.
"We could get there later tonight," Fitzgerald said.
Democrats didn't have enough votes to get their amendments adopted, so much of the time was spent dissecting the bills and playing to the thousands of protesters who watched the start of the debate on monitors in the rotunda.
"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, D-Fort Atkinson, 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 that 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 that they won't be able to survive if public workers don't make concessions, Fitzgerald said.
Dressed in orange T-shirts proclaiming they were fighting for working families, Democrats introduced 66 amendments, with more than half coming after midnight, and promised more were on the way.
Democrats offered to adjourn shortly before 3 a.m., Republicans - who easily have enough votes to pass the bill once they have disposed of the Democrats' amendments - refused and began the long grind of voting each change down one by one.
"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 sector unions have said they would agree to the financial concessions, but won't give up their bargaining rights.
Thousands have rallied to the unions' side, converging on the Capitol day after day demanding Walker's removal. 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.
In Wisconsin, Walker tried to turn up the pressure on missing Democrats on Tuesday, saying if lawmakers can't pass the measure by the end of the week the state won't be able to refinance debt to generate $165 million in savings. He warned that state employees could start receiving layoff notices as early as next week if the bill isn't passed soon. However, existing union contracts could forestall the layoffs for weeks or months, and Walker wouldn't say which jobs he would go after first.
Borrowing the strategy pioneered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walker took his case straight to the voters with a speech from his Capitol office that he called a "fireside chat." With protesters drowning out his message as it was played over monitors in the rotunda, Walker calmly laid out his case for the bill, saying it was needed to balance the state's budget now and into the future.
"It certainly isn't a battle with unions," Walker said. "If it was, we would have eliminated collective bargaining entirely or we would have gone after the private-sector unions."
One of the missing Democrats, Minority Leader Mark Miller, delivered a response from Illinois.
"The only action available to us to slow this down and allow democracy to work was to take us out of the Capitol," he said.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Ryan J. Foley in Madison contributed to this report.
© 2011 The Associated Press.