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On Wisconsin!

How Republicans won the battle of Madison.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES AND JOHN MCCORMACK
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The talks went well, and Walker was not surprised when the Wall Street Journal reported that evening that the Democrats would be coming home. Miller, the Democratic leader, told the paper: “We are now looking at returning to the state capitol and requiring the senators to take a vote and have them declare who they’re with—the workers or the governor.” 

Jauch, as he had done in meetings with Republicans, pointed to the advanced pregnancy of one state senator in Illinois as a factor in the decision to return. “I think we have to realize that there’s only so much we can do as a group to make a stand,” he said. “It’s really up to the public to be engaged in carrying the torch on this issue.”

But as had been the case all week, the moment Republicans thought the homecoming was imminent, the story changed. State senator Chris Larson, a hard-left legislator, posted a message on his Facebook page saying the Democrats were staying away and claiming, implausibly, that the Journal had quoted his colleagues out of context.

If there were any question that the deal was dead, the Democratic leader dispelled it by issuing a letter Monday to Walker through the media. His missive called for a meeting near the Illinois-Wisconsin border—an absurd request given the regular negotiations that had been quietly taking place for a week. 

“He was trying to frame the debate as if we hadn’t been negotiating,” says one source close to Walker. “We’d been taking hits in the media for refusing to negotiate, and we never went public to push back on that so as to not jeopardize the progress we thought we were making. We knew then that Miller was being disingenuous.”

So Republicans got serious about a GOP-only alternative. After one of the breakdowns in negotiations, a week before, Walker had gone to Republicans in the state senate to gauge their willingness to move forward without the Democrats. They were not interested—yet. Since the earliest days of the standoff, Republicans had been engaged in an informal back-and-forth with lawyers from the state’s legislative fiscal bureau, a nonpartisan agency, about their options. On Monday, they formalized their request: How much of the budget repair bill could be passed without a quorum?

They were thrilled with the response—almost all of it. Despite speculation that employee contributions to benefits (what Walker and his staff called the “5-and-12” provisions) would have to be stripped out, the bureau informed Republicans these could remain—meaning both of the main components of the bill could be passed without Democrats. Two other nonpartisan state agencies agreed, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Bureau. The attorneys insisted that the legislation drop a refinancing provision as well as the sale of state-owned power plants. But most of the bill could be moved. Although the 5-and-12 and collective bargaining provisions would have a fiscal impact, they did not require the state to appropriate any money and thus could be included. “Democrats thought we wouldn’t be able to do the 5-and-12 with collective bargaining,” says Walker. 

There was more good luck on Monday. In an interview with radio host Charlie Sykes, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who had lost the governor’s race to Walker last fall, pushed the Republicans to try to move forward without the Democrats. Barrett, working on the mistaken assumption that the 5-and-12 would require a separate vote, said: 

Barrett: You could vote on those without those missing senators. You could vote on those tomorrow morning. You don’t need 20 senators to vote on those changes to the collective bargaining. Again, if someone really wanted to end this standoff, the way you would end it is simply have a separate vote.

Sykes: Would you favor that?

Barrett: I would certainly favor that.

So on Wednesday, when Walker spoke to Republicans in the senate, they not only had a legal opinion endorsed by three nonpartisan legal agencies, they also had political cover provided generously, if inadvertently, by the state’s most prominent Democrat.

In a late afternoon vote, senate Republicans passed the tweaked budget repair bill and sent it back to the assembly, which had passed the original version, for its approval on Thursday. 

Democrats were outraged. They claimed that Republicans had broken the state’s Open Meetings law, which states 24 hours’ notice should usually be given before a public meeting. “They violated state law,” huffed Mayor Barrett in a radio interview the next morning. “They operated like this is a banana republic.”

“Republicans have made a mockery of democracy,” said Representative Peter Barca, the Democratic leader in the state assembly.

On Thursday, Barca filed a legal challenge, alleging the vote had violated the Open Meetings law. But the case seems to have little chance of succeeding. The senate chief clerk, a nonpartisan official who offers parliamentary and legal advice to the chamber, wrote in an email to senators that the vote “appears to have satisfied the requirements of the rules and statutes.”

Those rules and statutes state that during a special session, under which the legislature has been operating for the past month, the only notice required is a posting on a bulletin board in the capitol. The Republicans did that. And then, just to be safe, they waited two hours, the minimum notice required under the Open Meetings law when it’s “impractical” to wait for 24 hours.

The absurdity of the Democrats’ outrage was too much. They weren’t merely wrong on a procedural point. They were accusing Republicans of “making a mockery of democracy,” operating like a “banana republic,” and, in former labor secretary Robert Reich’s words, conducting a “coup d’état.” All the while, Democrats were hiding in another state trying to prevent a newly inaugurated senate from holding a vote on vital state business.

But in the end, senate Republicans had found a way to vote. The Assembly passed the bill on Thursday. Scott Walker signed it into law on Friday. 

And that is what democracy actually looks like.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer, and John McCormack a staff writer, at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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