By James Kelleher
MADISON (Reuters) - The Wisconsin state Assembly on Thursday began a session expected to approve sweeping Republican-backed restrictions on public sector union powers as thousands of protesters gathered at the Capitol.
The Capitol opened three hours late and the session was delayed 90 minutes so that police could secure the building and physically remove some protesters from halls by the Assembly chambers.
Several thousand demonstrators furious about the proposal to eliminate most public sector union collective bargaining rights massed at the Capitol grounds and police blocked off streets surrounding the building.
Republican leaders said they planned to limit debate on the measures and expected a vote later on Thursday.
The Republican-led Senate ended a three-week standoff and passed a revised bill on Wednesday that severely curtails the collective bargaining rights of public sector unions. Some state Senate Democrats, who had left Wisconsin to stall the vote, were resigned to defeat and began to return to the state on Thursday.
Protests against the union proposal have been peaceful through three weeks of demonstrations and not a single arrest has so far been made, police said.
If the Assembly passes the bill, it will go to newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker for signature. Walker has said he will sign it immediately.
"We have shown we can have passionate debate. We are civil in the state of Wisconsin. We respect the law," Walker told a press conference in Milwaukee on Thursday.
Critics accused Walker and the Republicans of flouting the law by using a legislative maneuver to ram the draft bill through the state Senate on Wednesday evening on short notice and without debate.
Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan called the Senate proceedings "a kangaroo Legislature."
What began a month ago as a Republican effort in one small U.S. state to balance the budget has now turned into a confrontation with unions that could be the biggest since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.
Republican Walker insists the limits are needed to help the state's cash-strapped municipalities deal with a projected $1.27 billion drop in aid over the next two years from the state, struggling to close its own $3.6 billion budget gap.
All 14 Democratic senators left the state on February 17 to deny the Republicans, who have 19 Senate members, the quorum of 20 needed on a budget vote. That ended abruptly on Wednesday when Republicans stripped out the sections that involved financial matters.
In an 18-to-1 vote, the Senate Republicans approved the restrictions on collective bargaining.
Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin said he left Illinois on Thursday morning to return to his district in northern Wisconsin and expected other Senate Democrats also were returning to the state.
The Senate bill severely restricts collective bargaining for tens of thousands of the state's public worker unions and increases their health care and pension contributions. Wisconsin has some 175,000 public sector workers.
The measure has prompted mass demonstrations in the state capital by the bill's opponents and triggered a wave of recall campaigns targeting both the governor's supporters and opponents in the legislature.
If the plan is approved as expected in Wisconsin, a number of other states where Republicans swept to victory in the 2010 elections could follow. Legislatures including those in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, Kansas and New Hampshire have already been working on union curbs of their own.
The stakes are high for labor because more than a third of U.S. public employees such as teachers, police and civil service workers belong to unions while only 6.9 percent of private sector workers are unionized. In Wisconsin, 46.6 percent of government workers are union members.
Unions are the biggest single source of funding for the Democratic party.
(Reporting by James Kelleher, Jeff Mayers and David Bailey; Editing by Peter Bohan and Greg McCune)