MADISON, Wis.—It became clear early Tuesday that the state Assembly would probably meet all night. The lower house’s Democrats did not flee the state, as their colleagues in the upper house did. (For their trouble, the senators spent part of the day avoiding Illinois Tea Party members who’d tracked them to an Extended Stay hotel.) They opted instead to engage in a de facto filibuster of the Budget Repair Act. A list of 100 potential amendments expanded to a rumored 200 or so amendments.
Republicans didn’t hide their irritation. “We’re going to be here probably for a couple of days if we have 200 amendments,” said Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. “But let me know. Somebody give me the one that solves the budget crisis, because I’ll move that one up to the front. We’ll get it done and we won’t have to do the rest of the amendments.”
At another point, Fitzgerald dismissed the Democrats’ stack of amendments by saying, “They’re trying to stall.” Of course they were. Democratic staff explained the strategy: Talk endlessly, debating whatever could be brought to the floor. Stay as long as stamina allows. If fatigue wins out, let it, start withdrawing the remaining amendments, and let the vote go ahead, so the bill can languish in limbo while the absent senators traverse the Land of Lincoln.
There’s a lot about this impasse that no one has seen before in Wisconsin. The Republicans had participated in a quasi-filibuster before, and Democrats had suffered through it. But this was different: Inside the Capitol, within hearing distance of the assembly floor, hundreds of screaming, drumming protesters were howling in support of the Democrats. At times, crowds formed on the Capitol lawn right outside the assembly chamber.
Still, it hardly compared to the stuff Democrats were hurling at Republicans inside the room. The session opened on a cordial note, with a bipartisan bill to salute Capitol police. As they did last week, Democrats wore Florida-orange-colored shirts with the slogan “Fighting for Working Families.” The session then careened into a half-hour-long debate over whether Republicans had illegitimately brought forward a vote on Friday. Rep. Peter Barca, the Democrats’ effervescent floor leader, issued a threat: He’d drawn up a measure for the removal of the speaker pro tem.
“If there’s one more violation of these rules,” said Barca, “we’ll be debating it and we’ll be voting on it! We will not stand for that kind of behavior.” He spotted two members smiling. “You can laugh back there, gentlemen. You can laugh at these rule violations. Maybe I should come to your district and meet with your editorial board.”
Rep. Kevin Peterson, one of the smilers, got up to respond. “Stop stalling with tactics on the floor,” he sighed. “As soon as you come and do your jobs, then we can have time to debate in the districts.”
“Thank you very much,” said Barca, quietly. “I appreciate that. Because first of all it shows how ignorant of the law you are!” That last part was delivered with a full-throated shout, as if Barca had become trapped down a well and needed help from a passing helicopter. “It’s illegal! Are you really that cavalier?”
Barca and two other Democrats unloaded on Republicans. One of those Democrats, Rep. Andy Jorgensen, turned red as he accused two Republicans of fist-bumping during the Friday vote. “This isn’t a comedy club!” he said. “This isn’t open mic night!”
It was a bizarre debate, one that Republicans weren’t particularly interested in.
“We could stop the theatrics!” said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, a young-looking freshman member of the GOP caucus. “We could stop these back and forths, and these little games that politicians play, and we could say, ‘No more! The consequences are too high!’ “
So that debate ended, and the long parade of Democratic speeches began—complete with theatrics. In the seven hours of debate, they did not even make a dent in their amendments. They spent much of their time debating whether the budget repair bill could be referred to the labor committee, which would slow it down considerably. The point, sort of, was that they wanted more time to debate the bill in public. The real point was to draw the debate out. They could make soaring, 20-minute-plus speeches about the history of the labor movement; Republicans had to sit awkwardly, respectfully, tediously at their desks as protesters yelled through concrete at them.
“You hear that and you know you hear it,” said Rep. Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat. “I’m just waiting for them to take a break.” She paused. They kept screaming. “OK, maybe they won’t take a break. They’ve done everything they can do to make sure their voices are heard in this building. And what do you do instead? You put your head down. You look at your computer, you play solitaire, and you pretend that they’re not there!”
This wasn’t entirely fair. The Republicans had just as little to say to the protesters as they did a week ago. Beyond their appeals to generations of social change, beyond Rep. Cory Mason’s history of the “labor peace,” Democrats were arguing with a different set of facts. They point to an official state estimate of the budget gap at $137 million, all of which the Democrats claim could be erased if tax cuts were scaled back. * The Republican argument, expressed by Fitzgerald in one of the day’s few Republican speeches, is the same as it is in every Republican-run state: The state’s been living beyond its means, public workers have been living too large, and they can’t ever be allowed to grow so fat again. The Fitzgerald twist was that this was not a debate about abstractions.
“I’m hearing from people I haven’t heard from in 20 years,” he said. “You know how difficult it is to look those people in the eye and say, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna have to do it?’ “
But Democrats could match Fitzgerald pity-for-pity. Rep. Mark Radcliffe used his time on the floor to share stories about the bravery of World War II survivors and the ways he saves money in his office. “People tell me, ‘It’s so cold in there,’ ” he said. “I keep the lights off! I’m frugal! Every time I open my electric bill, I can see how much I saved by keeping my lights off.”
The debate dragged on long after Gov. Scott Walker had finished his address to the state. (Rep. Dan Richards joked that it should have been dubbed “the king’s speech.”) More people saw that than will see anything that was happening in the State Assembly. If they checked in, they would see Democrats trying to hold out on a massive battle—the rescue of the bargaining and organizing rules that make unions a political force in the state—by appearing to have the same willingness to make cuts as Republicans. They just claim that the union reforms, having come out of the blue, have no place in the debate.
As the session dragged on, they sought new ways to make the point. Rep. Mark Pocan repeatedly waved his wallet at Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer. He bet him all the money inside that he couldn’t find an example of Walker, during the 2010 campaign, pledging to end collective bargaining for public-sector unions. Kramer claimed to have found one.
“August 29, 2010,” he said. “Walker supports a bill that would take away the rights of unions to negotiate health care benefits. … I hope you’re loaded.”
“So far? Errrrrrrr!” said Pocan, imitating the sound of a game-show buzzer. “You just proved my point. I wish I bet you what you had in your wallet because you probably have more than me.”
Correction, Feb. 23: The article originally misstated Wisconsin’s budget deficit as $137 billion. (Return to the corrected sentence.)