Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate voted Wednesday night to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats.
All 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's so-called "budget repair bill" -- a proposal introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall.
The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spend money. But Republicans on Wednesday split from the legislation the proposal to curtail union rights, which spends no money, and a special conference committee of state lawmakers approved the bill a short time later.
The lone Democrat present on the conference committee, Rep. Peter Barca, shouted that the surprise meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law but Republicans voted over his objections. The Senate convened within minutes and passed the measure without discussion or debate.
Before the sudden votes, Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch said if Republicans "chose to ram this bill through in this fashion, it will be to their political peril. They're changing the rules. They will inflame a very frustrated public."
Walker said after the votes that Senate Democrats had plenty of opportunities to come home.
"I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government," the governor said in a statement.
Walker's proposal has touched off a national debate over union rights and prompted tens of thousands of demonstrators to converge on Wisconsin's capital for weeks of protests. Spectators in the gallery Wednesday night screamed "You are cowards" as the Senate voted.
"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," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. "Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people. Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government."
The drama unfolded less than four hours after Walker met with GOP senators in a closed-door meeting. He emerged from the meeting saying senators were "firm" in their support of the bill.
Democrats had been calling all day Wednesday for Walker and Republicans to compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said earlier that Republicans had been discussing concessions Walker's office had offered, including allowing public workers to bargain over their salaries without a wage limit. Several GOP senators facing recall efforts had publicly called for compromise.
Union leaders weren't happy with the concessions, and Democrats had not signed off on them.
While talks had been going on sporadically behind the scenes, Republicans in the Senate also had publicly tried to ratchet the pressure on Democrats to return. They had agreed earlier Wednesday to start fining Democrats $100 for each day legislative session day they miss.
Walker's stalled bill was introduced to help plug a $137 million budget shortfall projected by the end of June. He has said that without the collective bargaining bill, he may have to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
On Wednesday, the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau offered a way to salvage $165 million in debt by refinancing savings. It had said the bill could pass as late as early April if other accounting moves were done by Walker's administration to extend the debt refinancing deadline by a month.