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Tensions flare in Wisconsin after Assembly passes bill on union rights

By David Ariosto, CNN
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Gov. Scott Walker: 'About the future'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Democrats chanted "shame, shame, shame" moments after assembly vote
  • Fourteen Democratic senators have fled the state in bid to keep bill from passing
  • Thousands have protested proposal to limit collective bargaining
  • Wisconsin State Assembly passed controversial legislation

What do lawmakers do while on the lam?

(CNN) -- Tensions simmered in Wisconsin as a political stalemate continued Friday after the state's Assembly passed a Republican bill that would strip most state workers of the bulk of their collective-bargaining rights.

Among other things, the measure would require workers -- with the exception of police and firefighters -- to cover more of their health care premiums and pension contributions.

Collective bargaining would be limited to wages, though any pay increases beyond the inflation rate would be subject to voter approval.

Democrats chanted "shame, shame, shame" moments after the vote, pointing their fingers at the exiting Republican lawmakers.

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  • Wisconsin
  • Scott Walker

But the fight over the bill appears far from over. It still must clear the Wisconsin Senate, a step that is likely to prove far more contentious.

Fourteen Democratic senators have fled to neighboring Illinois to prevent a quorum from voting on the issue, and they remained absent early Friday.

Gov. Scott Walker reiterated his call for Democrats to return to the Legislature, defending the bill.

"Collective bargaining is a fiscal matter," said Walker, who toured multiple state districts Friday in an effort to pressure the absentee lawmakers. But Democrats said the governor's proposal is tantamount to union-busting.

"The vote we took wasn't the easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do," Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, a Republican, said early Friday. "I continue to urge my Democrat colleagues in the Senate to come back to Madison so that they can debate this bill and do their job for the taxpayers of Wisconsin."

Thousands have protested the legislation in recent days.

On Thursday, Walker also called on Democrats to come back to Madison "and do their job."

The absence of the Democrats prevents a quorum from voting on the bill.

"It is a serious breach," said University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein. "We're looking at a set of novel and unprecedented actions. But a breakdown of the democratic process and mayhem are two different things."

If the Democrats are "willing to go to the mattresses on this, then it has got to be worth a lot of money," he said.

At a Thursday night news conference, Walker said if the Legislature does not pass his budget bill, state aid to local governments could be cut, brushing off critics who said the legislation will destroy public employee unions in the state.

"Wisconsin state employees have the strongest civil protections in the country. That's not going to change in this bill," Walker said. "It's not about the union boss coming in from other parts of the country. It's about whether we protect the taxpayers and the workers."

One lawmaker who left the state, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, said in a response from Rockford, Illinois, that Walker should "recognize that he got what he wants" in concessions on pension and health insurance contributions and relent on curbing collective-bargaining rights.

The confrontation reached a fever pitch after Walker was recorded during a prank phone call discussing the idea of duping absentee Democrats by luring them back to "talk, not negotiate," allow them to recess and then have the 19 Republican senators declare a quorum.

The Republican-led Senate presumably then would be able to move forward on the controversial legislation.

The state had faced a suggested deadline Friday to balance the budget. The crucial date is March 16, state officials said. Wisconsin is confronted with a $137 million budget shortfall by June 30 and a $3.6 billion gap by 2013.

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.

 
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