By Jeff Mayers
MADISON (Reuters) - Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate approved sweeping curbs on collective bargaining by public employees on Wednesday in an abrupt and accelerated vote that caught many Democrats by surprise.
The move added to the already bitter political atmosphere in Wisconsin over the fight, and dozens of protesters flooded the Capitol in the evening following the vote, ignoring announcements from police that the building was closed.
The ground floor and first floor appeared nearly as full as they were during the first days of the demonstrations more than three weeks ago, and protesters stayed in the Capitol defiantly chanting "recall" and "Whose house? Our house!"
Outside the Assembly chamber, House Minority Leader Peter Barca allowed protesters to fill out forms listing themselves as witnesses to a violation of the state's open meetings laws stemming from the Republicans' earlier conference committee meeting.
The move by the Wisconsin Senate will increase the anxiety of union workers nationwide, who face similar efforts to roll back public employee power in a number of other states.
The bill, which also increases the health care and pension costs for workers and was the most controversial part of newly elected Governor Scott Walker's emergency budget repair bill, now heads for the Republican-controlled state Assembly, where quick passage as early as Thursday is all but assured.
By stripping out the sections of Walker's bill that involved appropriating funds, the Senate Republicans were able to work around the legislative roadblock their 14 Democratic colleagues threw up three weeks ago when they fled the state to deny the Republicans a quorum.
In an 18-to-1 vote, the Senate approved the curbs on collective bargaining by public employees.
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.
The measure has prompted massive 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.
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.
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, and Kansas 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. Unions are the biggest single source of funding for the Democratic party.
Walker, 43, applauded the move, which came despite signs, including public opinion polls, that a growing number of Wisconsinites don't back the measure.
Walker never mentioned the proposal on his official campaign website nor debated it during his two-year campaign. It reverses long-standing policy in Wisconsin, among the first states to give public employees union rights.
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," Walker said in a statement.
But Wisconsin Democrats blasted the move, whose speed seemed to surprise the missing Senators.
"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said.
Miller and other Senate members said they would now be coming back to the state and continuing the fight.
"We have no reason to remain away and when the Assembly acts on the bill tomorrow we will be back in the state within a matter of hours," Democratic Senator Jim Holperin told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"We did what we could to delay the bill so people could know what was in it and to try to negotiate something less than the complete elimination of workers' rights."
Democrats say Walker is taking advantage of the state's current financial problems to attack organized labor -- traditionally a strong supporter of the Democratic Party and a critical player in any effort by Democrats to recover from the setbacks they suffered in the midterm elections last fall and to keep President Barack Obama in the White House in 2012.
Immediately upon being sworn as governor in this January, Walker convened a special session of the legislature to pass what he called a budget repair bill. Buried inside were the provisions slashing public employee union rights.
By stripping out the fiscal fixes in the bill and considering just the collective bargaining portions, the Senate Republicans were able to pass the measure on Wednesday without the absent Democrats.
The Senate measure requires public workers to pay health care premiums and contribute to their pensions -- concessions the workers had signaled they would accept if the collective bargaining restrictions were removed.
A conference committee made up of Republican members of the legislature on Wednesday separately approved a revised budget repair bill over the objections of Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, who called the meeting a violation of state law.
(Reporting by Jeff Mayers and David Bailey; Writing by James B. Kelleher; Editing by Jerry Norton)