- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A handful of Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin seemed to hold one of few paths to a compromise that could end a high-stakes stalemate over union rights that has captured the nation’s attention.

Gov. Scott Walker made clear Monday he won’t back off his proposal to effectively eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Senate Democrats who fled the state last week to delay the plan vowed not to come back to allow it to pass — even if they have to miss votes on other bills Tuesday. And union leaders said they would not let up on protests that have consumed Wisconsin’s capital city for a week and made the state the center of a national debate over the role of public employees unions.

That dynamic means it might take Republicans in the Legislature who believe Mr. Walker is going too far to try to break the impasse. One idea that has been floated by Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz would take away temporarily the bargaining rights to get through the state’s next two-year budget, then immediately restore them.

Mr. Walker rejected that idea during an interview Monday on MSNBC.


“It will never get to me because other than that one state senator, all the rest of the Republicans are firmly behind our proposal,” Mr. Walker said in the interview, calling it an unacceptable short-term fix.

Mr. Walker was meeting Monday morning with Republican lawmakers.

While it’s unclear whether that would be acceptable to his colleagues, Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a phone interview from the hotel room in Chicago where he’s hiding out that Mr. Schultz was brave for making the proposal. He said Mr. Schultz and five or six other Republican senators who have ties to organized labor are in the best position to get both sides to negotiate a deal.

Protesters who crowded inside the Capitol for a sixth day Sunday had a similar message. They hung a banner in the Capitol reading, “Wisconsin needs 3 cou(R)ageous Senators,” referring to the number of Republicans needed to join with Democrats to block the bill.

The protesters have included teachers, who sometimes have arrived in such high numbers that their districts were forced to close because of understaffing. The Madison School District was closed Wednesday through Monday but was expected to reopen Tuesday.

Districts in central Wisconsin also were closed Monday, but because of 10 to 12 inches of snow. Milwaukee schools were shut down for a previously scheduled midsemester break. Those closures, on top of Monday’s being a previously scheduled furlough day for state workers, could elevate the number of protesters who demonstrate in Madison.

A few dozen protesters spent the night inside the Capitol again Sunday, with many of them still huddled inside sleeping bags before 8 a.m. Monday morning. By midmorning the number of protesters, many of them banging on drums, grew to several hundred inside the building. The walls of the normally immaculate Capitol were adorned with signs urging Mr. Walker to back down, but he’s shown no willingness to compromise.

Mr. Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, on Monday accused Senate Democrats of vacationing and renewed the call for them to return and vote on the bill.

So far, there’s little evidence that lawmakers will move to compromise. “Won’t happen, won’t happen, won’t happen,” said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican. He said he had spoke with every member of his caucus over the weekend and they remained “rock solid” in their support for Mr. Walker’s plan, even if they had some internal disagreements earlier.

Mr. Fitzgerald said Republicans could not back down now because the governor’s two-year budget blueprint, to be released in coming days, slashes spending for public schools and municipal services by $1 billion or more. Local government leaders will need to make cuts without bargaining with employees, he said.

Mr. Walker’s plan would allow unions representing most public employees to negotiate only for wage increases, not benefits or working conditions. Any wage increase above the Consumer Price Index would have to be approved in a referendum. Unions would face a vote of membership every year to stay formed, and workers could opt out of paying dues.

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