MADISON, Wis. — Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted Wednesday night to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats.
All 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's so-called "budget repair bill" — a proposal introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spend money. But Republicans on Wednesday split from the legislation the proposal to curtail union rights, which spends no money, and a special conference committee of state lawmakers approved the bill a short time later.
The lone Democrat present on the conference committee, Rep. Peter Barca, shouted that the surprise meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law but Republicans voted over his objections. The Senate convened within minutes and passed the measure without discussion or debate.
Before the sudden votes, Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch said if Republicans "chose to ram this bill through in this fashion, it will be to their political peril. They're changing the rules. They will inflame a very frustrated public."
Walker said after the votes that Senate Democrats had plenty of opportunities to come home.
"I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government," the governor said in a statement.
Walker's proposal has touched off a national debate over union rights and prompted tens of thousands of demonstrators to converge on Wisconsin's capital for weeks of protests. Spectators in the gallery Wednesday night screamed "You are cowards" as the Senate voted.