“They've painted themselves in a corner,” Wisconsin Republican state senator Randy Hopper says of his Democratic colleagues. “There's no way for them to get out of it.” Democratic senators last week fled Wisconsin rather than allow a vote on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's new budget bill, with its curtailments of some public-sector unions' right to bargain collectively. The bill surely would have passed given the Republicans' 19 to 14 advantage in the Senate. So Democrats, deeply dependent on union money and support, ran away to avoid a vote.
Walker has stood firm in the fight, but the truth is a lot of Republicans were nervous last week when crowds of protesters showed up and Democrats headed for the hills. What if the public supported the unions? After going home to their districts over the weekend, Republicans are feeling better. Many heard from constituents telling them to hang tough, and voters were especially unhappy with Democrats for hightailing it out of state. “We think public opinion is with us on the budget issue, and we're sure public opinion is with us on the Democrats' not showing up for work and doing their job,” says Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party.
In fact, for many Republican supporters, the big question is not whether the fight is worth the trouble but whether there's some way the GOP can steamroll over the Democrats. But that's not going to happen, at least for now. Republicans believe they are going to win without using extraordinary measures.
For example, there's been a lot of talk about whether, with the budget bill tied up, Republican senators could pull out the collective bargaining provisions and pass them as a standalone measure. The Senate's rules require a quorum of 20 senators to pass any bill that involves spending but just 17 senators for nonfiscal bills. Therefore, some believe that Republicans, with 19 votes, could pass the collective bargaining measure on their own.
It won't work. Walker put out a statement Monday strongly arguing that the collective bargaining provision is in the budget bill because it has a big fiscal impact and therefore would have to be passed by the higher vote standard.
That is, in fact, the crux of Walker's argument — that he has to cut back on collective bargaining to fix the state's budget. Even if the unions accede to the governor's demand that unionized workers be required to pay 5.8 percent of their wages for pensions and 12.6 percent for health care, Walker and other Republicans believe union leaders will turn around and use collective bargaining to try to win back the money in other ways: costlier health care, other benefits, overtime. They're convinced that limiting collective bargaining is a fiscal issue and therefore can't be passed by short-cut.
Still, there are other things Republicans can do to pressure Democrats. Specifically, there are bills that touch on hot-button issues that could be considered while Democrats are in hiding. For example, there's a measure that would require a photo ID for people to vote in Wisconsin. It's a move Democrats absolutely hate and Republicans fully support. If GOP lawmakers pass it — and it might come up soon — Democrats likely will be tearing out their hair in Illinois or wherever else they are hiding.
For the lawmakers themselves, at least Republicans, this whole controversy has led to a surpassingly weird impasse. A number of them have known their Democratic counterparts for years. Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald speaks by phone with the hiding Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller. And Hopper has been on the phone with Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor, a colleague from Milwaukee. “I offered to give her a ride to work,” Hopper says, “but she said no.”
Hopper says he reminded Taylor that Republicans were out of power not too long ago, when Democrats controlled the state Assembly, Senate and governor's office. “There were bills I was adamantly opposed to,” Hopper says, “and we didn't run away.”
At the heart of all this, Republicans and Democrats are realizing there might be a gap between them that is bigger than they realized. To Republicans, the budget fight has involved the widespread shirking of responsibilities: teachers walking out on students, legislators running away from their offices, even doctors abandoning medical standards to make excuses for perfectly healthy teacher/protesters. To Democrats, the fight has touched a core issue; anything is justified to preserve union benefits.
At some point, the battle will be over. But it's not clear Republicans and Democrats will ever look at each other quite the same again.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.