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Wisconsin Lawmakers Pass Anti-Union Bill as Police Remove Protesters

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Police try to secure a door during a protest at the Wisconsin state Capitol March 10 in Madison.AP

In a decisive blow to union power, Wisconsin lawmakers voted Thursday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers.

The state's Assembly passed Republican Gov. Scott Walker's explosive proposal 53-42 Thursday. The state's Senate approved it the night before after using a procedural move to bypass its AWOL Democrats.

Walker says he'll sign the legislation as quickly as possible.

"I applaud all members of the Assembly for showing up, debating the legislation and participating in democracy," Walker said in a statement. "Their action will save jobs, protect taxpayers, reform government and help balance the budget."

Wisconsin Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca filed a complaint Thursday with a local district attorney's office claiming that Republicans violated the state's open meetings law with the Senate's actions Wednesday. He complained that the conference committee that first took up the proposal did so without a prior vote in the Senate and that lawmakers were not given sufficient notice.

Earlier Thursday, protesters were removed from the Wisconsin capitol building as Republicans under police escort used a tunnel entrance to return to the chamber. 

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald predicted his chamber would pass the bill, after the Senate on Wednesday broke a three-week impasse by passing a pared-down version of Walker's budget proposal. Senate Democrats held up the bill by fleeing the state, but Republicans crafted a version that allowed them to advance it in their absence. 

The scene in Madison was raucous as lawmakers prepared for a final vote. At least 100 protesters packed a hallway leading to the state Assembly, pounding drums, while the Democratic representatives gathered in front of the doors, which were opened just before 11:30 a.m. At least 50 protesters were carried out by police, and the building was locked down briefly while officers did a security review.

Rallies against the bill have attracted thousands of protesters to the Capitol over the past several weeks. A vote on it had been held up after 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois, leaving that chamber one short of the 20 members needed to take up any measures that spend money. Republicans got around that Wednesday by removing all spending measures from Walker's collective bargaining legislation and voting to approve it without Democrats present.

About 200 people spent the night in the Capitol in protest over the Senate's swift and unexpected passage of the bill. Dozens of Democratic representatives showed up in the morning to find the doors to the chamber locked.

"What more egregious, illegal, unethical step can be taken to prevent democracy in Wisconsin?" asked Rep. Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, as she pounded on the door along with her colleagues.

The doors were later opened. 

Police began clearing protesters out about an hour before the scheduled vote. Danny Spitzberg, 26, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said officers gave protesters little explanation for why they needed to leave. He walked out on his own after being ordered to leave, but others were dragged through the hall.

"This is grossly undemocratic, it stinks up the whole process," Spitzberg said. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.