Pressure on Wisconsin Unions, Dems Grows as Walkout Drags on

How Long Can Wisconsin Dems Stay in Hiding?

“For us, this is about balancing the budget. We've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit. We are broke. Just like nearly every other state across the country, we're broke. It's about time somebody stood up and told the truth.”

Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., on “FOX News Sunday”

The 14 Democratic members of the Wisconsin Senate remain at large, with a handful vowing in interviews from undisclosed locations to stay in hiding as long as necessary to prevent a vote on a budget proposal opposed by government union workers.

But with only one Democrat needed to bring the measure up for vote and Republican resolve deepening, the standoff seems set to soon turn into a showdown.

Meanwhile, labor activists from around the country continue to flock to Madison to join the protest of the legislation which would increase state workers’ contributions to their retirement and health benefits and make future pay raises beyond standard cost-of-living increases subject to a public vote.

Tens of thousands of union marchers, many bussed in from around the Midwest, showed their opposition in a weekend march on the governor’s mansion and mass demonstrations. Government workers planned to use their Washington’s Birthday holiday for sympathy protests in Iowa and other states.

But amid the high-stakes standoff, there are signs that the union-Democrat coalition is showing some strains.

Union teachers were urged to return to classes by the head of their statewide labor group after repeated complaints from parents who have seen schools in many districts closed since the middle of last week as teachers call in sick. While out of state groups can replace the manpower for the sit-in protest at the capitol, the end of the sick out is a sign that public tolerance of the labor unrest is growing thin.

On the table now is a plan from a centrist Republican senator that would make the curbs on public employee unions in Gov. Scott Walker’s bill temporary. Union leaders declare the measure unacceptable because Republicans could vote to extend the restrictions in 2013, but it increases the pressure on Democratic senators to emerge from hiding and to allow the Senate to resume.

Remember, just one Democrat needs to be present for a vote to take place. Refusing to go to work for six days while the state capital remains in turmoil has not enhanced their bargaining position. While Walker and Republicans are on television and in newspapers pleading constantly for the legislature to be allowed to function, Democrats have been limited to furtive media appearances and forced to rely on labor leaders to carry their messages.

The Senate president says the body will reconvene on Tuesday in hopes that at least one Democrat may choose to break the boycott.

Democrats argue that there would be a heavy political price for Republicans to pay if the federal government shuts down over a budget impasse – that public patience will wear thin when political disagreements cause disruptions. By the same argument, Wisconsin’s Democrats are inviting a backlash by holding out.

Obama Terribly Tangled in Wisconsin Unrest

“I think it’s very important that we support pro-democracy activism everywhere, whether we’re talking about Manama in Bahrain or whether we’re talking about Madison, Wisconsin. It is a kind of rolling rebellion that is taking place.”

-- Amy Goodman, host of public radio’s “Democracy Now,” in an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal”

The Obama White House is pushing back against the idea that the president and his grassroots campaign organization have helped whip up the labor unrest currently gripping Wisconsin.

The president’s communications director told the New York Times that the “organic, grass-roots opposition” in Wisconsin is not a result of White House involvement.

This is the administration looking to walk back Obama’s involvement in the fight as it becomes a flashpoint for the most liberal members of his party.

Obama called the Wisconsin austerity measure an “assault” on unions and his campaign has encouraged supporters to join demonstrations. But now, groups like Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and others are raising money and seeking support for a national effort to push back against Republican efforts to curb government unions.

With Ohio, Tennessee and many other states preparing legislation similar to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s, liberal activists have seized on the concept as the determinative fight of the new political era. As Dean’s group said, stopping Walker in Wisconsin is “a chance to stop them all right here, right now. D.O.A.”

And since government workers are now perhaps the most important part of the Democratic coalition – providing foot soldiers and massive financial support for campaigns – a rolling effort to make it harder for government unions to collect money and enlist members would be a serious blow for the party.

But Obama’s decision to get involved early on in Wisconsin has plunged his administration into a state-level issue with lots of local complexities. It also associates the president with some ugly rhetoric and tactics being used in support of his position. Comparing the elected lawmakers of Wisconsin to the despots of the Middle East has become very common practice. And as the union-curbing movement spreads to legislatures across the country, the same dramas may play out across the land.

Illegal work stoppages and angry mobs of protesters out in support of the privileged few in government unions across the country does not bode well for Obama’s effort to re-brand himself as a centrist.

The longer this drags on and the uglier it becomes, the harder it will be for Obama.

GOP Looks to Avoid a Government Shutdown

“I don't think the Senate will pass this cut. We will have to negotiate.”

-- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., on “Face the Nation”

Congress is out of session for the week for Washington’s Birthday. But when they return to work, they will be only four days away from a government shutdown.

The House has passed a budget that slashes $61 billion from current spending levels for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year. The Senate has been working in secret on a counter proposal.

The sense in the House is that some temporary measure will be passed to allow negotiations to continue, but that even the stopgap plan will have to include some cuts as a show of good faith from the Democratic Senate.

“We made a very strong statement – an unmistakable statement – in support of fiscal discipline,” a top House GOP aide told Power Play. “But we also have to accept reality. We have a Democratic Senate and a president who is calling for more spending, not less. This will be a negotiation.”

The challenge is that while Republican leaders downplay the chances of a stalemate with the Senate causing a government shutdown, Democrats are hoping to provoke just such a result in the belief that it will damage Republicans politically.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will try to jam up House Republicans with a no-cuts or low-cuts counter offer, but Reid’s control of his caucus is in doubt. Moderate Democrats, especially those facing reelection next year, will work with Senate Republicans on a compromise plan.

This week will be given over to secret negotiations and public posturing as the March 4 deadline looms.

Turmoil Deepens in Oil-Rich Region

“The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet.”

-- Seif Al-Islam Qaddafi, son of Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi, in a television address.

Libya is on the verge of civil war as separatist groups in the eastern part of the country challenge the desperate regime of unhinged strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Qaddafi has proven the most brutal, outside of Iran, in dealing with the protests. Part of the challenge in Libya is that ethnic and religious separatists in the eastern part of the country are using the moment of political unrest to push old grievances with Qaddafi.

Meanwhile, in the capital of key U.S. ally Bahrain, Iranian-backed protesters from the nation’s Shiite majority have retaken the central square as government forces pulled back under diplomatic pressure from the U.S. government.

Libya and Bahrain are both key to Western access to Middle Eastern petroleum and ongoing unrest has caused markets to become jittery, especially in Europe, which depends most directly on the region.

The greatest fear is that the Saudi government may come under similar pressure soon. There has already been an attempted revolt in neighboring Kuwait, and the online architects of the revolutionary movement have their sights set of the biggest prize in the list of pro-Western regimes in the region: the House of Saud.

Tricky Two-Step on Obama Drone War

“There's been very little focus on that question from a human rights perspective. Targeted killings are about leaders - it shouldn't be a blanket dispensation.”

-- Peter Bergen, a director at the liberal New America Foundation, to the Washington Post discussing the escalation of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan

The Obama administration finds itself in a pickle over the covert war being fought in Pakistan.

On the one hand, the administration is pushing back on the notion that the effort to use unmanned aerial drones to kill terrorist leaders in the nation has been escalated to a military-style bombing campaign under Obama.

The huge number of those killed in drone strikes in the past year – at least 581 according to a new report by the Washington Post – suggests not aerial assassinations but a bombardment of strategic locations.

That huge volume of strikes opens up the administration to critics of the war at home who suggest Obama is stretching the power of his office to engage in a covert war in Pakistan. The high body count will also inflame already angry Pakistani sentiment about U.S. incursions against their sovereignty.

But in pushing back on those story lines, the administration risks invalidating its own position of the Afghan war – which is that the attacks are targeted, legal and done in cooperation with our Pakistani allies.

That’s why it was with unusual fanfare that the campaign resumed after a month-long pause. Blind quotes from the defense apparatus dismissed suggestions that the month off was for the sake of frayed relationship with the Zardari government, which is always at risk of collapse, in part because of public resentment of the U.S. air campaign.

The way that Obama deals with this tricky two-step – downplaying the volume of the attacks while still touting their effectiveness – will have a lot to say about the future of the American effort in the region.