Wisconsin budget fight escalates as Dems flee Madison to avoid vote

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A three-day-long stand-off at the Wisconsin state capitol between union supporters and those backing the Republican governor’s budget cuts just went to another level Thursday as Democratic senators apparently fled the area to prevent a vote on Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill, which would cut public employee union collective bargaining rights and require them to contribute to pensions and health care.

Fourteen Senate Democrats have left the state to prevent the vote, according to AP sources in Wisconsin, attempting to force further negotiation on the bill, which would pass the Republican-controlled Senate if brought up for a vote. ABC News reports that 13 of 14 of the Democrats may have fled the state in a bus headed to Iowa. The move would stall a vote on the budget-repair measure and protect missing Democrats from a provision in Wisconsin’s constitution that allows lawmakers to compel their return to the capitol.

Earlier today, law enforcement was sent to find missing Democratic lawmakers, according to a Madison, Wis. ABC affiliate. State Sen. leader Scott Fitzgerald said only one Democrat is needed for quorum to vote on the controversial bill, which is expected to pass a Republican-majority Senate. The “Sergeant of Arms is going door to door to find Democratic senators.”

The budget-repair bill passed a finance committee 12-4 late last night, its last hurdle before a Senate vote, on party lines convincing Senate Democrats that moderate Republicans would not deliver them an upset victory over Gov. Scott Walker. (Opponents of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker call him “Mini Mubarak.” Read more.)

Sources tell the Madison NBC affiliate that Democratic lawmakers may have left the state to avoid a vote, possibly fleeing to the Illinois border, about an hour drive from Madison. The move is a repeat of a 2003 stunt by Texas Democrats who fled to a hotel room in neighboring Oklahoma to avoid a redistricting vote.

Public employees, largely teachers and many of their students, have been protesting in Madison for three days, flooding the Capitol building with people and signage. Many Wisconsin schools have had to close due to sick-outs by large percentages of the state’s teachers.

The fight in Wisconsin has become a flash point for a national debate over budget deficits and how to solve them, with both sides recognizing the high-stakes battle will become a template for other states, no matter who comes out on top. A large defeat for unions in the battleground state of Wisconsin—the birthplace of AFSCME— would have large public policy repercussions.

The Democratic Party’s Organizing for America, the leftover campaign apparatus from the Obama campaign, has entered the fray, filling buses and running phone banks for unions in Wisconsin. President Obama offered his opinion, declaring Walker’s measures an “assault on unions” despite admitting he hadn’t looked into the details.

The vote procedure is fluid in Madison now, depending on who shows up the the Senate. Assembly Democrats are reportedly still at the Capitol.

This story has been updated.