Wisconsin's Republican leaders upped the stakes Thursday in their standoff with Democratic state senators who fled the state to deny a vote on anti-union bill, with Gov. Scott Walker threatening to begin issuing layoff notices within 24 hours unless his measure was passed and Senate Republicans authorizing police to round up their missing colleagues.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Walker said he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state workers on Friday if at least one of the 14 Senate Democrats didn't return from Illinois to give the Republican majority the quorum it needs to vote. The legislation would strip most public employees of nearly all of their collective bargaining rights and require them to contribute more to their pension and health plans.
The legislation has led to nearly three weeks of protests - some attended by tens of thousands of union supporters - in and around the state Capitol, which was completely cleared of demonstrators late Thursday for the first time in 17 nights after a judge ordered the building closed during non-business hours.
The final 50 or so protesters left peacefully about two hours after the judge's order, which also said the state unconstitutionally limited access to the building since Monday and ordered the state to grant greater access to the public starting next Monday.
The protesters departed after a group hug, clutching sleeping bags, pillows and drums as they walked through two rows of Democratic state lawmakers and others who thanked them for their efforts. Many vowed to return in the morning, and no one was arrested.
"We decided it would be best for our image to leave tonight peacefully and come back tomorrow," said Matt Rowe, 21, of Madison, carrying an armful of blankets after he left the building.
Walker told the AP that he is cautiously optimistic that a deal can be struck to bring the missing Democrats back, but he said he won't compromise on the collective bargaining issue or anything that saves the state money.
"I can't take any of that off the table," he said. "We cannot tear apart this budget. We cannot put this burden on local governments. But if there are other ways they are willing to work with us to find a pathway back, I think that's what people want."
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller confirmed there were talks with Walker, but he did not think they were close to reaching a deal.
Senate Republicans set a 4 p.m. deadline for the Democrats to return, and when it passed Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald signed the order finding them in contempt and authorizing police to detain them if necessary. He argued the resolution is about restoring order to the Senate and not about forcing a vote on the anti-union bill.
The order is only binding in Wisconsin, and Fitzgerald urged residents to phone police if they spot one of the missing senators.
Senate Democrats disagreed with Fitzgerald about what's allowed under the chamber's rules. Sen. Chris Larson said they hadn't done anything illegal and couldn't be arrested.
"There are so many police supporting us, they might have a hard time finding one to bring us back," said Miller.
Walker's budget proposal hinges on the state saving $330 million over two years by forcing state workers to pay more for their benefits. Workers would be taking the equivalent of an 8 percent pay cut. Walker also is cutting aid to schools and local governments by about $1 billion, reductions he says they can't handle without the freedom he gives them through eliminating nearly all collective bargaining with public workers.
Walker said he has to issue the layoff notices starting Friday so the state can start to realize the $30 million savings he had assumed would come from the state worker concessions contained in the bill. The layoffs wouldn't be effective for 31 days, and Walker said he could rescind them if the bill passed in the meantime.
All state workers, except those at prisons, state hospitals and other facilities open around the clock, would be potential layoff targets, he said.
"I pushed it off as long as I could because I do not want to have layoffs," Walker said.
Walker said he was talking with some of the "more reasonable members" of the missing Democrats, sometimes multiple times a day, about a deal that could get them to come back.
"I'm still cautiously optimistic we can get this done," Walker said. "I think we're close, but the problem is we thought we were close the past couple days."
Walker refused to say what issues they were discussing.
"We've laid out a path that we think gives them certainly not everything they wanted but some things they're interested in and some things we found to be reasonable that we could accommodate," he said.
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, a union representing 11,000 law enforcement officials from across the state, released a statement from its director Jim Palmer slamming the Senate Republicans' resolution to go after the Democrats.
"The thought of using law enforcement officers to exercise force in order to achieve a political objective is insanely wrong and Wisconsin sorely needs reasonable solutions and not potentially dangerous political theatrics," Palmer said.
Marquette University Law School professor Dan Blinka said no matter how it's described, the resolution calls for what amounts to an arrest that would have to be justified under the law. If it's found unconstitutional, any action taken by the senators after they were forced to return could be invalidated, Blinka said.
Howard Schweber, an associate political science and law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Senate Republicans can properly order police to enforce their rules, as long as they don't try to impose criminal sanctions on the Democrats.
A memo provided by private attorney Jim Troupis, who was hired by the Senate Republicans and often works with the GOP, said the state Constitution gives them authority to act to compel attendance under its rules.
Once the senators do return, Fitzgerald said they could face reprimand, censure or even expulsion.
This program aired on March 4, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.