As expected, Wisconsin's state Assembly has approved a bill curbing the collective bargaining rights of public-sector employees.
In a vote early Friday morning, the lawmakers advanced legislation that has sparked heated protests in the state and generated national interest at a time when most states are seeking ways to address massive budget deficits. Wisconsin's current shortfall is $137 million.
The bill forces union employees to pay more for health and pension benefits, but it's most controversial aspect strips those employees of collective bargaining rights.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has defended the legislation as essential to dealing with harsh economic realities, but Democrats take a far different view. President Obama himself said it appeared to be an "assault" on unions.
Assembly Democrats had extended debate on the bill for 60 hours before a vote was hastily conducted at 1 a.m. Friday -- with 15 Democratic members still waiting to speak. The Associated Press reported that they shouted "Shame!" and "Cowards!" at their Republican colleagues, who quickly left the floor after the vote.
According to the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal
, the vote occurred "in pell-mell fashion" and took so many lawmakers by surprise that 28 of them, including 25 Democrats, did not vote at all.
Focus now moves fully to the Wisconsin Senate, where Democrats have been absent all week in order to deny a quorum in the Republican-controlled chamber, where the bill is otherwise expected to pass and be signed by Walker.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who, like his fellow senators is in neighboring Illinois, told the Wisconsin State Journal
that he and his colleagues wouldn't return until Walker compromised on the union-rights issue.