OTR Interviews

Stalemate or Progress? Conflicting Messages from Secret Meeting with AWOL Wis. Democrats

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," March 1, 2011. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Tonight: A secret meeting. Did you hear about the secret meeting in Wisconsin? Now, it was called on the state line, right between Illinois and Wisconsin. How many of the defiant Senate Democrats tiptoed across the state line and back into Wisconsin? And what happened at this secret meeting? Well, tonight, you're going inside that secret meeting. Plus, Wisconsin's lieutenant governor is here with the latest.

But first, the only Republican called to the secret meeting tells you what happened. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald joins us live from Madison. Good evening, sir.

WI STATE SENATE MAJORITY LEADER SCOTT FITZGERALD: Good evening, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, so who went to this meeting?

FITZGERALD: I got a phone call over the weekend that started a conversation about what did we need to do to get the Democrats back into the chamber at the state senate. And we decided that it was time for us to have a face-to-face meeting.

So I was invited down to speak to a number of Senate Democrats, and we had about a two-hour meeting. It was very cordial. We talked about a number of different issues, including the budget repair, and then beyond that and the way we conducted ourselves once they made their way back to the capitol. And it got the conversation moving, I thought. And we went back and forth with some ideas, and I think it was a good meeting.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK, now, I noticed it was in Kenosha. I know the state of Wisconsin, so that's just essentially right over the line into Wisconsin. Was there some sort of negotiation? Why were you able to lure the Democrats into the state? And how come they couldn't lure you into Illinois?

FITZGERALD: No, no. We just found a place that was convenient. There was no talk of trying to trap the Democrats or capture the Democrats, no. It was more of just a convenient place for us to get together and talk.

VAN SUSTEREN: OK. Who went?

FITZGERALD: Well, I myself was there, and there were a number of Senate Democrats. And certainly, they -- it did not include the minority leader, Senator Miller, but some other Democrats that I think expressed the idea that there are probably eight or nine Democrats in the caucus that are ready to come back to -- ready to come back to Wisconsin and go to work. They've been out -- out there for a couple weeks now and have had enough and think it's time to come back. So I'm hopeful that that'll happen very soon.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, and now, this is the third time I'm trying, so you know, who was there? Why would it be -- I mean, I take it that you don't want to answer it, now that I'm having to go a third time to ask it. So what's the big secret as to who attended? I mean, you know, this is supposed to be sort of an -- I mean, I'm assuming it was a democratic process, voting, you're complaining because they won't come home and vote. I mean, like, you know, why not -- why not tell us who went, how many went, and how much -- you know, what's the big secret about that?

FITZGERALD: Well, I promised the senators that I wouldn't tell exactly who was there or how many were there. I think they were kind of concerned that they were doing something behind their own leader's back. And it wasn't intended, I think, to certainly circumvent or undermine the leader. I think it was just a couple of senators that I've known over the years, and it was -- it was a way of kind of breaking the stalemate. And I think it did. I think it -- it was a good discussion that may have moved us beyond this gridlock that we're experiencing right now.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, I won't ask you a fourth time. I'll just take it that you're not going to tell me who was there, so I'll leave it at that, but...

FITZGERALD: Right. Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... You say that you -- you say you think that it broke the stalemate. The fact is, the 14 are still in Illinois, so it doesn't look to me like it really broke the stalemate. You might have had a nice conversation, but I don't see any -- I don't see any of them coming home right now.

FITZGERALD: Well, the whole thing was prefaced on the idea that we will not negotiate on the budget repair bill. That was clear. And I made that very clear to them before I even drove down to Kenosha. It was more about beyond that, that bill, in the governor's full budget, which he announced today at 4:00 o'clock, which I think was significant in that it demonstrates exactly what the governor's been talking about and what we in the assembly and in the senate have been discussing, which is the governor's going to make significant cuts in education and in shared revenue, the money that makes its way to the local levels of government. And because of that, you know, I think people are starting to see with clarity what Governor Walker was talking about.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, that's one issue, but there's also the whole process issue. And it looks like -- it looks like now there's a lot of gaming going on. I mean, you've still got the Democratic senators out. You've now moved on to the next budget. You've had a secret meeting. You won't name who it is. Nobody'll come home. You say a stalemate is -- that the stalemate is broken, but I don't see any part of that. So it actually doesn't seem to me -- and I'm a thousand miles away, but it doesn't seem to me like there really is progress. I mean, I don't see -- you haven't convinced me there's progress on this.

FITZGERALD: No, I think there is in that, you know, I think it's pretty evident that the Democrats have kind of found themselves boxed in and unable to return. Labor certainly will put pressure on them not to come back to the capitol. And yet, you know, we are sitting in the chamber by ourselves each and every day, and I think some of these people are feeling -- some of the Democrat senators are feeling the pressure. So I'm hopeful that, you know, every day, each and every day, there's going to be at least one or two senators that comes back and allows us to quorum so that we can moved forward. I think -- I think we're getting there.

VAN SUSTEREN: Did any one of those senators say, I will come if, and it seemed like something could you live with?

FITZGERALD: Yes, I mean, we threw some ideas back and forth at each other, and I held my ground on the budget repair and said, That's not negotiable. But there are other things.

VAN SUSTEREN: What did -- what did...

FITZGERALD: I mean, how we...

VAN SUSTEREN: What -- what would bring them home? What -- I mean, what did they put on the table that might lure them home?

FITZGERALD: Well, they did -- I mean, they did touch on, you know, collective bargaining items, but you know, they were rejected. And you know, there were other things that we talked about, the decorum of the senate when they come back, how are we going to proceed, how are we going to treat the Democrat senators once they return from Illinois. We talked a lot about that.

And then a discussion, I think, about, you know, is there something down the road in the budget debate that will continue all the way through June that, you know, the governor will give them an audience to sit and down and talk with him, you know, how are we going to work with them on the full budget bill, and you know, anything that would have got them back to the chamber as soon as possible. And I think there is movement. I think - - I think there's eight or nine of them that want to come home and they're trying to figure out a path to do that.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, thank you, sir. Good luck, sir.

FITZGERALD: All right, Thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: And well -- and while our next guest may not have attended that secret meeting with Senator Scott Fitzgerald, our next guest is one of the "Wisconsin 14" and released a statement that Governor Walker's just announced budget is a hostile corporate takeover of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Democratic Senator Jon Erpenbach joins us live from Chicago, where he's hiding out. Good evening, sir. And just to be a little bit flip with you, I take it you're not going to become a Bear fan because if you become a Bear fan, they'll never let you back in Wisconsin.

STATE SEN. JON ERPENBACH, D-WIS.: I don't know. Did you become a Giants fan? Of course not!

VAN SUSTEREN: I'm in Washington-...

ERPENBACH: I'm a Packer fan through and through.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. I'm in Washington...

ERPENBACH: You're in Washington?

VAN SUSTEREN: ... and the answer is no, I'm -- no, I'm not a Redskin fan.

ERPENBACH: OK. Good.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, now, you didn't attend this secret meeting. Do you know who went to the secret meeting?

ERPENBACH: No, I didn't find out about the secret meeting until I was called by a reporter. So obviously, somebody did not want the meeting to be secret. I think a couple of senators, from what I understand, met with Scott. I don't know what was discussed. But I got to believe that we're a little more firm in our stance. Now to hear again from Senator Fitzgerald that he wants us to come back and debate something that's not negotiable. I don't know how that's going to break any stalemate.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, so what -- so far, you're out what, one paycheck? Is that right? You're supposed -- they passed a rule...

ERPENBACH: Yes.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... where you have to go -- you have to go to the floor and pick up your senate paycheck. How long can you last -- how long can you last without a paycheck?

ERPENBACH: Well, that's up to my parents. I'm actually getting help from my family, which is very -- very nice to have that happen. But obviously, I'm pretty much a paycheck-to-paycheck kind of guy. It's just like a lot of people in Wisconsin. But I'm getting help from my family right now.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, how long is your family going to be able to -- be willing to do this or able to do this? It's not -- I take it you're living in a hotel, which is not an inexpensive way to live.

ERPENBACH: No, it's not an inexpensive way to live, so we're cashing in on some hotel points and also trying to get the best deals we can on the Internet. But again, my parents and my family firmly believe that what we're doing is right, and they'll stand behind me.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, one senator, as I understand it, is pregnant, so she's got medical considerations as time marches on. Has she indicated that she is likely to go home, that the medical considerations are going -- are superior to any conviction she may have as a Democratic senator?

ERPENBACH: Well, I talked with Senator -- actually saw Senator Lassa last night, and she's in a good mood, cracking a few jokes. I asked her how she's feeling. She said she felt fine. And she feels pretty good about where we're at now, too. So I don't expect that out of Julie.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. The -- as I understand it, the deadline was today for refinancing part of the debt that Wisconsin has and that it's going to -- it's a -- it's -- now the taxpayers have got this sitting in their lap, this expense. Do you feel the least bit responsible -- since you were elected and your job is to vote, do you feel responsible for not - - I mean, do you feel any sort of guilt that you're not home voting like you're supposed to?

ERPENBACH: No, not at all, and let me tell you why. It's $165 million payment that you're talking about, and it's a payment that's due in May on our debt. And that's $165 million that's already been allocated. So the money has already been set aside to make the payment. What Governor Walker is doing is he's taken the $165 million off the table, putting it in his budget to balance the budget that he's going to borrow and bond to pay that back over the next 10 years or so and actually adding $165 million that's going to be borrowed, an additional $40 million to finance that. So it's going to cost us in the end somewhere right around $205 million. So the money's there to pay the bill right now. He's just taking this to balance his budget, something, Greta, he said he would never do.

VAN SUSTEREN: If -- if one of your colleagues, one of your 14 goes home, that breaks it, and so now they could have a quorum, the Republicans. I assume at that point, you would come home, even though you're still opposed to what the governor's doing?

ERPENBACH: Yes, very opposed to what the governor's doing. But to a senator, all 14 of us have agreed we're not going to be the 20th senator on the floor. We're not even going to be the 21st senator on the floor.

VAN SUSTEREN: If one does? If...

ERPENBACH: No.

VAN SUSTEREN: If, hypothetically, one does?

ERPENBACH: We have all -- no, it's not a hypothetical. We are firmly in our position of the fact that none of us is going to be the first or second senator to cross the state line and go give them a quorum to take away workers' rights. So it's a hard question to answer because it's not going to happen.

VAN SUSTEREN: Senator, thank you, sir. And I hope you'll join us again because I have a feeling the story is not ending very quickly. Thank you, sir.

ERPENBACH: All right. Thank you.