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Wisconsin Assembly passes bill taking away union rights (Read More…)

Fri Feb 25, 2011

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early Friday morning before sleep-deprived Democrats realized what was happening.

The vote ended three straight days of punishing debate in the Assembly. But the political standoff over the bill — and the monumental protests at the state Capitol against it — appear far from over.

The Assembly’s vote sent the bill on to the Senate, but minority Democrats in that house have fled to Illinois to prevent a vote and say they won’t return unless Republican Gov. Scott Walker agrees to discuss a compromise. Republicans who control the Senate sent state troopers out looking for them at their homes on Thursday, but they turned up nothing.

“This kind of solidifies our resolve,” Democratic Sen. Chris Larson said Friday after the Assembly vote. “If we come back, they’re going to ram this through without us having a say.”

The governor didn’t sound conciliatory Friday, saying during an afternoon appearance in Green Bay that although “we got to find a way to make it comfortable for those 14 senators to come back home,” Republicans had no intention of backing off the main tenets of the bill.

Walker’s proposal contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state’s $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the upcoming 2011-13 budget.

The flashpoint is language that would require public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and strip them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.
Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers’ rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.

Tens of thousands of people have jammed the Capitol since last week to protest, pounding on drums and chanting so loudly that police providing security have resorted to ear plugs. Hundreds have taken to sleeping in the building overnight, dragging in air mattresses and blankets.

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Friday that the Assembly’s passage of the bill did not change Senate Democrats’ intent to stay away.

With the Senate immobilized, Assembly Republicans decided to act and convened the chamber Tuesday morning.

Democrats launched a filibuster, throwing out dozens of amendments and delivering rambling speeches. Each time Republicans tried to speed up the proceedings, Democrats rose from their seats and wailed that the GOP was stifling them.

Debate had gone on for 60 hours and 15 Democrats were still waiting to speak when the vote started around 1 a.m. Friday. Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, R-Waukesha, opened the roll and closed it within seconds.

Democrats looked around, bewildered. Only 13 of the 38 Democratic members managed to vote in time.

Republicans immediately marched out of the chamber in single file. The Democrats rushed at them, pumping their fists and shouting “Shame!” and “Cowards!”

The Republicans walked past them without responding.

Democrats left the chamber stunned. The protesters greeted them with a thundering chant of “Thank you!” Some Democrats teared up. Others hugged.

“What a terrible, terrible day for Wisconsin,” said Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee. “I am incensed. I am shocked.”

GOP leaders in the Assembly refused to speak with reporters, but earlier Friday morning Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, warned Democrats that they had been given 59 hours to be heard and Republicans were ready to vote.

“I applaud the Democrats in the Assembly for earnestly debating this bill and urge their counterparts in the state Senate to return to work and do the same,” Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said in a statement issued moments after the vote.

The governor has said that if the bill does not pass by Friday, the state will miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt and will be forced to start issuing layoff notices next week. However, the deadline may not as strict as he says.

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said earlier this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed back as late as Tuesday to achieve the savings Walker wants. Based on a similar refinancing in 2004, about two weeks are needed after the bill becomes law to complete the deal. That means if the bill is adopted by the middle of next week, the state can still meet a March 16 deadline, the Fiscal Bureau said.

Frustrated by the delay, Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, Jeff Fitzgerald’s brother, ordered state troopers to find the missing Democrats, but they came up empty. Wisconsin law doesn’t allow police to arrest the lawmakers, but Fitzgerald said he hoped the show of authority would have pressured them to return.

Posted by Admin on 02/25 at 03:28 PM

Wisconsin Puts Obama Between Competing Desires (Read More…)

Feb. 20, 2011 — The battle in Wisconsin over public employee unions has left President Obama facing a tricky balance between showing solidarity with longtime political supporters and projecting a message in favor of deep spending cuts to reduce the debt.

Over the weekend, the White House and Democratic Party officials pushed back against criticism from Republicans that Mr. Obama and his political network were meddling in the Wisconsin dispute.

Administration officials said Sunday that the White House had done nothing to encourage the demonstrations in Wisconsin — nor was it doing so in Ohio, Florida and other states where new Republican governors are trying to make deep cuts to balance their budgets.

And, officials and union leaders said, reports of the involvement of the Democratic National Committee — specifically Organizing for America, the grass-roots network born of Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign — were overblown to start with and were being inflated by Republicans sensing political advantage.

“This is a Wisconsin story, not a Washington one,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. “False claims of White House involvement are attempts to distract from the organic grass-roots opposition that is happening in Wisconsin.”

Before Mr. Obama complained late last week of an “assault” on the unions by the Republican governor in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, the Democratic Party had alerted its volunteers in Organizing for America to support the protests there and elsewhere, seeing an opening to show solidarity with the labor movement and rev up the party’s liberal base ahead of the 2012 elections.
By the weekend, national party officials were taking credit for encouraging the protests, especially through the use of Twitter and other online social networks.

But the party got involved, officials say, without consulting the political team at the White House, which is wary of getting distracted from Mr. Obama’s own budget confrontations with Republicans in Washington and upsetting his carefully nurtured position as an advocate for serious measures to address deficits.

On Sunday, Republicans continued to censure Mr. Obama for weighing in on the Madison fight. In an interview with a Milwaukee television station on Thursday, the president criticized Mr. Walker for his proposal to restrict the bargaining rights of public employee unions. Republicans also said that political organizers at Democratic headquarters were stoking the protests.

Among Mr. Obama’s critics was Governor Walker. “The president ultimately should stay focused on fixing the federal budget because they’ve got a huge deficit and, believe me, they got their hands full,” Mr. Walker said on “Fox News Sunday.” He also said “more and more” protesters were coming from other states.

At issue in Madison is less Mr. Walker’s proposed reduction in public employees’ pay and benefits, which the unions have agreed to, and more his proposal to limit their collective bargaining rights. But people familiar with the protests say the national Democratic Party got engaged days after the demonstrations began and mostly after union officials, liberals and Wisconsin Democrats complained that the Obama organization was missing in action.

Mr. Obama has had strained relations with unions in general, and many do not believe he fights hard enough for their issues; public employee unions have been especially critical lately, since he proposed a two-year freeze of federal employees’ pay.

The Milwaukee television interview that was Mr. Obama’s first involvement in the Madison budget war was sought by the White House not to interject the president into the state’s fight but to promote his separate message concerning his own national budget-cutting drama: the station broadcasts into the district of the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, Representative Paul D. Ryan.
In the interview, the president sought to thread the needle between supporting the need for public employees to sacrifice while defending their bargaining rights: “Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”

That comment was “inappropriate,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said on the NBC program “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

“The governor of Wisconsin is doing what he campaigned on,” Mr. Graham added.

Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, disagreed. “I believe the president should have weighed in,” he said on the same program. “I think we should all weigh in and say, ‘Do the right thing for Wisconsin’s budget but do not destroy decades of work to establish the rights of workers to speak for themselves.’ ”

While Republicans seized the opportunity to depict Mr. Obama as siding against deficit-cutting efforts, some Democrats and union organizers said the political benefit ultimately could be theirs.

“This has really kind of put a shot in the arm of the unions and Democratic base,” said Eddie Vale, the political communications director at the A.F.L.-C.I.O., who is returning to Madison on Monday, when even bigger demonstrations are expected on a federal holiday. “If Republicans keep trying to do the same thing in state after state, they’re just going to be building the 2012 get-out-the-vote operation” for Democrats.

Posted by Admin on 02/21 at 10:34 AM