Published December 23, 2015
Wisconsin Republicans are trying to lure Senate Democrats back to the state capital by moving ahead with a controversial bill that would require voters to show photo ID before casting a ballot.
At the same time, the Democrats are being threatened with recalls and having their paychecks withheld -- efforts that the 14 Senate Democrats say won't deter them in their opposition to the anti-union bill that prompted their flight.
Democrats have fought the voter ID bill for years, arguing it would make it more difficult for minorities and elderly people to vote. But a state Senate committee passed the bill Tuesday over the objection of one Democratic lawmaker who tried to participate by phone. The move was a taunt aimed squarely at the Senate Democrats who fled the capital last week to prevent Republicans from voting on a budget-fix bill that would cut deep into union benefits and rights.
One of those Democrats, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, phoned in to the committee meeting Tuesday. But after the chairwoman, Sen. Mary Lazich, pressed him on where he was and whether he was heading back to Madison, Erpenbach said that was up to Gov. Scott Walker, and in the end, he was not allowed to vote.
The absence of all 14 Democrats effectively halted debate on the budget bill, since Republicans, who have 19 members in the Senate, would need 20 lawmakers present to have a quorum for action on spending measures. But Republicans were able to move to non-spending items, such as the voter ID bill, on Tuesday.
The pressure is ramping up for the Democrats to return. A Utah-based group has filed paperwork to recall some of them, and the Senate passed a measure withholding paychecks from absent lawmakers.
But the Democrats say they're not coming back while the bargaining rights are in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Democrats retain some leverage in the fight. Wisconsin has until Friday to pass the budget legislation or it could face $165 million in additional expenses associated with missing a deadline to restructure its debt.
Walker is urging lawmakers to take action but at the same time rejected calls to let union workers keep collective bargaining rights. Walker wants to strip those rights, as well as require public employees to pay more into their health care and pension plans.
Thousands have converged on the state capital over the past week to protest the budget plan, while supporters of Walker have also trekked out to the Madison streets to hold counter-protests.
It's unclear how long the standoff will last. None of the 14 Democrats who left the state showed up for the state Senate meeting on Tuesday, and Walker warned that state employees could start receiving layoff notices as early as next week if the bill isn't passed soon.
The Senate met under increased security Tuesday, with about 15 members of the public in the balcony. The roars of pro-union protesters could be heard outside the doors as the Senate moved ahead with other business, including a resolution commending the Green Bay Packers.
One of the truant Democratic senators, Lena Taylor, told Fox News that the governor has "overreached," claiming he's already gotten the concessions he wants.
"If you have what you need to address the budget issues then you need to come to the bargaining table and give people their rights," she said, referring to collective bargaining rights. Taylor spoke with Fox News Monday night from an undisclosed location in Illinois.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that amid the protests, the National Guard toured at least one state prison, potentially in preparation for a possible takeover -- though correctional officers said they did not plan to strike.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.