- Associated Press - Thursday, February 17, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Police officers were dispatched Thursday to find Wisconsin state lawmakers who apparently had boycotted a vote on a sweeping bill that would strip most government workers of their collective bargaining rights.

The lawmakers, all Democrats in the state Senate, did not show up when they were ordered to attend a midday vote on the legislation.

The proposal has been the focus of intense protests at the Statehouse for three days. As Republicans tried to begin Senate business Thursday, observers in the gallery screamed: “Freedom! Democracy! Unions!”

Republicans hold a 19-14 majority, but they need at least one Democrat to be present before taking a vote on the bill.

“Today they checked out, and I’m not sure where they’re at,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican, said. “This is the ultimate shutdown, what we’re seeing today.”

Minority Leader Mark Miller, a Democrat, released a statement on behalf of all Democrats urging Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans to listen to opponents of the measure and seek a compromise. His statement did not address where Democrats were or when they planned to return.

Bill opponents in the Senate gallery cheered when Senate President Mike Ellis, a Republican, announced that not enough senators were present to proceed.

The bill came to the Senate after the Legislature’s budget committee endorsed it just before midnight Wednesday.

Mr. Walker and Republican legislative leaders have said they have the votes to pass the plan.

That didn’t stop thousands of protesters from clogging the hallway outside the Senate chamber beating on drums, holding signs deriding Mr. Walker and pleading for lawmakers to kill the bill. Protesters also demonstrated outside the homes of some lawmakers.

Hundreds of teachers called in sick, forcing a number of school districts to cancel classes. Madison schools, the state’s second-largest district with 24,000 students, closed for a second day as teachers poured into the Capitol.

Hundreds more people, many of them students from the nearby University of Wisconsin, slept in the Rotunda for a second night.

“We are all willing to come to the table; we’ve have all been willing from day one,” said Madison teacher Rita Miller. “But you can’t take A, B, C, D and everything we’ve worked for in one fell swoop.”

The head of the 98,000-member statewide teachers union called on all Wisconsin residents to come to the Capitol on Thursday for the votes in the Senate and Assembly.

“Our goal is not to close schools but instead to remain vigilant in our efforts to be heard,” said Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell.

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