By Jeff Mayers
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Wisconsin Democrats who fled the state more than two weeks ago to block a vote on a Republican plan to limit public union collective bargaining said on Sunday they have no immediate plans to return.
"I think the situation has not been resolved," said Mike Browne, a spokesman for Wisconsin senate minority leader Mark Miller, while adding: "I don't think anyone has ever suggested that at some point the Democrats don't return."
Browne and several of the 14 Democrats in the senate who left the state on February 17 sought to downplay comments by Miller to the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that Democrats will return to the Capitol soon for a vote on the Republican bill.
"I think he's speaking the truth that at some point - and I don't know when soon is - at some point we have to say we've done all we can," Senator Bob Jauch told Reuters.
Jauch and Sen. Tim Cullen have been part of negotiations with the staff of newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker, who says the controversial bill now stalled by the Democrats is vital budget repair for the current fiscal year.
Miller told the Journal that moving forward with a vote on the budget repair would give Democrats more leverage in seeking changes to the 2011-13 budget the governor proposed last week.
Cullen declined comment, saying Miller didn't speak with him before making the comments, while Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who's been the lead contact with media during the standoff, said Democrats are not preparing to return.
Browne said there was nothing really new in Miller's comments and that Democrats continue trying to keep the lines of communication open.
"The bottom line is that Democrats would still like to see a reasonable negotiated settlement," Browne said.
He added: "The whole strategy by stopping a vote on the bill was to allow the public to comment on the bill."
A poll by Rasmussen Reports of 800 Wisconsin voters on March 2 found 34 percent strongly approved of Walker's performance as governor, while 48 percent strongly disapproved. Walker was elected with a 52 percent majority last November.
DEMOCRATS UNDER PRESSURE
Walker proposed increased payments for health care and pension benefits for public workers but also stripping most of their unions of most key collective bargaining provisions.
"I don't think there's any question that what the governor has proposed has proven to be overwhelming unpopular with the people of Wisconsin and has clearly affected his standing," Browne said.
Thousands of union supporters in Madison protested the budget proposals this weekend after Walker issued layoff warning notices to at least 13 public unions late Friday. But the crowds were smaller, with an estimated 12,000 protesters on Saturday compared to more than 70,000 one week earlier.
Walker has shown few signs of compromise, telling reporters on Thursday that "extremist elements" among 14 absent Democrats had blocked progress.
Walker said some of the absent Democrats, who have been threatened with $100-a-day fines and the prospect of being arrested and taken to the Senate if they return to Wisconsin, appear willing to stay away "not only for several more months, but potentially the next two years."
But Miller and other Democrats say Walker's tactics will backfire on the Republicans if they are seen as extremists.
"We have been trying to get the Republicans to engage in a reasonable discussion here. On Thursday, the governor responded with a press conference to some of our discussions. That was something of a setback," Miller's spokesman Browne said.
As far as the fines and other penalties that the Republican majority has voted to impose on the absent Democrats, "those are issues that would need to be resolved in any kind of scenario moving forward," Browne said.
(Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb)
(Editing by Peter Bohan)