In 2009, Democrats had a clear majority in the U.S. Congress with an ambitious agenda to spend the nation out of a remarkable recession. It left minority Republicans little choice but to obstruct their legislative agenda. For standing up to the majority, Republicans were called the "party of no." They were accused of obstructing progress, and even worse, accused of not having real solutions.
In Wisconsin, the tables have turned. Democrats are in the clear minority, but they've proved to be a feisty bunch. Instead of voting on Governor Scott Walker's budget-repair bill, 14 Democrat Senators fled the state and have been hiding out in undisclosed locations for weeks. Their absence from the Capital effectively blocked the passage of the Walker's budget-repair bill as a quorum was needed for a vote.
A recent open-records request indicates that Republicans - not Democrats - were willing to make concessions in the bill to stop further stonewalling. Olive branches were offered, but still no agreement was reached. Rumors have also surfaced that Democrats were resolved to stay in Illinois until June, giving them enough time to recall Republicans in vulnerable districts. But it appears that will no longer be the case.
News just broke that Senate Republicans passed the non-fiscal components of the bill while retaining language that prohibits unions from bargaining over legacy items.
Democrats are complaining that Republicans rammed the bill through the Senate without any debate. Governor Walker responded saying Senate Democrats had three weeks to debate the bill, but they refused. Walker is right; no debate can take place if Democrats won't reenter the state.
Now that the part of the bill has passed, Democrats and liberal protesters are threatening the careers of vulnerable Republican Senators. Newbie Senator Chris Larson, who represents a politically moderate district, gave a tongue-lashing to Republicans saying they had just wrote their own obituary. That's big talk for a Senator whose district could easily give away his seat to someone as little qualified as he.
What does this all mean? In short, it means Wisconsin Republicans won and found a way to get the Rockford 14 back home. The minority did everything to obstruct Walker's budget-repair bill, even abdicating their duties as lawmakers to vote for legislation on deck. Thousands of teachers joined the madness participating in labor-organized sickouts. Their coordination with labor bosses effectively shut down sizable school districts in Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine. Children were forced to stay home as their teachers nursed their coughs with protest signs in hand.
Walker repeatedly warned that if his budget-repair bill didn't pass, local governments would be forced to lay off thousands of municipal and county employees. But Big labor didn't flinch. It was more important for them to retain bargaining control over legacy items than it was to protect thousands of government workers from layoffs. Don't worry though, only the lowest seniority workers will lose their incomes.
The standoff raises some interesting questions. Do Republicans have the moral high-ground or is it the Democrats?
In November, Wisconsin's electorate gave the keys of the kingdom to Republicans. They were ushered into office to clean up the fiscal mess left by a decade of Democrat rule. But instead of accepting the electoral consequences, Democrats fled Wisconsin slowing government to a virtual halt. Eventually, Republicans were forced to carry out business alone, passing key provisions on labor that prohibited them from bargaining over their health care and pension plans.
No doubt a PR war will ensue, but who will win? Walker will either be remembered as a leader who stood up against big labor and started a fiscal revolution, or he will be seen as a Governor who went too far, even for his own conservative base. But one thing is for certain, Scott Walker is dead serious about fixing Wisconsin's budget deficit. He's laying down some pretty austere measures, and he's has the resolve to enforce them. He has never backed down from big labor before, and it's my bet he won't start now.