Wisconsin Democrats in the state Assembly agreed to a deal in the pre-dawn hours Thursday to limit debate and reach a vote, perhaps by midday, on a bill taking away public workers' collective bargaining rights. Republican leadership in the Senate meanwhile dispatched police officers to the homes of some of the 14 Democratic lawmakers who have been on the run for a week to avoid voting on the proposal, to compel them to return.
The early morning action Thursday was designed to force a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's bill that has made Wisconsin the focus of a multiple state effort to curb union rights. The Assembly deal announced shortly after 6 a.m. followed more than 42 hours of debate that began Tuesday morning.
"We will strongly make our points, but understand you are limiting the voice of the public as you do this," said Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison. "You can't dictate democracy. You are limiting the people's voice with this agreement this morning."
The Senate convened at 7 a.m. for long enough to make a call of the house, which allows for the sergeant at arms staff to go to the homes of missing lawmakers with police. The lawmakers can't be arrested, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he hoped it would pressure them to return. He would not say how many Democrats were being targeted, but he said it was more than one.
"Every night we hear about some that are coming back home," Fitzgerald said.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who is in the Chicago area, said all 14 senators remain outside of Wisconsin and would not return until Walker is willing to compromise.
"It's not so much the Democrats holding things up, it's really a matter of Gov. Walker holding things up," Erpenbach said.
Tens of thousands of people have protested the bill for nine straight days, with hundreds spending the night in sleeping bags on the hard marble floor of the Capitol as the debate was broadcast on monitors in the rotunda. Many of them were still sleeping when the deal to only debate 38 more amendments, for no more than 10 minutes each, was announced. The timing of the agreement means the vote could come as soon as noon Thursday.
Democrats, who are in the minority, don't have the votes to stop the bill once the vote occurs.
Passage of the bill in the Assembly would be a major victory for Republicans and Walker, but the measure must still clear the Senate. Democrats there left town last week rather than vote on the bill, which has stymied any efforts there to take it up.
The battle over labor rights has been heating up across the country, as new Republican majorities tackle budget woes in several states. The GOP efforts have sparked huge protests from unions and their supporters and led Democrats in Wisconsin and Indiana to flee their states to block measures.
Republicans in Ohio offered a small concession on Wednesday, saying they would support allowing unionized state workers to collectively bargain on wages - but not for benefits, sick time, vacation or other conditions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal also would allow most public workers to collectively bargain only for wages.
In Ohio, Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus denied protests have dented the GOP's resolve, saying lawmakers decided to make the change after listening to hours of testimony. He said he still believes the bill's core purpose - reining in spending by allowing governments more flexibility in dealing with their workers - is intact.
Senate Democratic Leader Capri Cafaro called the changes "window dressing." She said the entire bill should be scrapped.
"We can't grow Ohio's economy by destroying jobs and attacking the middle class," Cafaro said. "Public employees in Ohio didn't cause our budget problems and they shouldn't be blamed for something that's not their fault."
Wisconsin Democrats have echoed Cafaro for days, but Walker has refused to waver.
Walker reiterated Wednesday that public workers must make concessions to avoid thousands of government layoffs as the state grapples with a $137 million shortfall in its current budget and a projected $3.6 billion hole in the next two-year budget.
The marathon session in the Assembly was grand political theater, with exhausted lawmakers limping around the chamber, rubbing their eyes and yawning as Wednesday night dragged on.
Around midnight, Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, accused Democrats of putting on a show for the protesters. Democrats leapt up and started shouting.
"I'm sorry if democracy is a little inconvenient and you had to stay up two nights in a row," Pocan said. "Is this inconvenient? Hell, yeah! It's inconvenient. But we're going to be heard!"
The Ohio and Wisconsin bills both would strip public workers at all levels of their right to collectively bargain benefits, sick time, vacations and other work conditions. Wisconsin's measure exempts local police, firefighters and the State Patrol and still lets workers collectively bargain their wages as long as they are below inflation. It also would require public workers to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance. Ohio's bill, until Wednesday, would have barred negotiations on wages.
Ohio's measure sits in a Senate committee. No vote has been scheduled on the plan, but thousands of protesters have gathered at the Statehouse to demonstrate, just as in Wisconsin.
In Indiana, Democrats successfully killed a Republican bill that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment by leaving the state on Tuesday. They remained in Illinois in hopes of derailing other parts of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' agenda, including restrictions on teacher collective bargaining.
And in Oklahoma, a Republican-controlled state House committee on Wednesday narrowly approved legislation to repeal collective bargaining rights for municipal workers in that state's 13 largest cities.
Associated Press writers Ryan J. Foley in Madison and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.
© 2011 The Associated Press.