Democrats in Ill. Welcome Wisc. Lawmakers

February 18, 2011

(With additional reporting from NPR, Illinois Public Radio, The Associated Press)

Fourteen Democratic state lawmakers from Wisconsin are hiding in Illinois to avoid a vote on a controversial bill that would strip some public workers in their state of collective bargaining rights.

Democrats who fled Wisconsin to block a vote on the sweeping anti-union bill could stay in hiding for days or even weeks. The bill has drawn thousands of protesters to the state Capitol in Madison, Wis. Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve - $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years.

Republicans hold 19 Senate seats but are one vote short of the 20 votes necessary to conduct business. The anti-union measure needs 17 votes to pass.

State Sen. Jon Erpenback (D-Middleton), who was among those who fled, said Friday that the group was prepared to be away for weeks, although he would like the standoff to end as soon as possible.

"This was an extreme action, but the legislation, we feel, was much more extreme," Erpenbach said.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton praised his fellow Democrats from north of the border for delaying the vote, which would almost certainly pass the state's heavily-Republican legislature. Meanwhile, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn had a warm welcome for the political refugees.

"We want to assure the people of Wisconsin that we're their friends," Quinn said. "We're always available here in Illinois if they'd like to visit and stay a while until (Gov. Walker) comes to his senses."

Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker said the Democrats should return to Madison and face the vote.

"The state senators who are hiding out down in Illinois should show up for work, have their say, have their vote, add their amendments," Walker told CBS' The Early Show on Friday. "But in the end, we've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit we've got to balance."

Although Walker called the Democrats' flight a stunt, many protesters at the Capitol saw it differently. School guidance counselor Saunnie Yelton-Stanley called their disappearance "brilliant."

"The fact that the Democrats have walked out, it shows they're listening to us," said Neil Graupner, a 19-year-old technical college student from Madison, as he prepared to spend the night at the Capitol on Thursday.

Erpenbach said he is meeting with the other refugee Democrats to decide what to do next - though he's not sure how long they will remain on the lam.

I mean I wish I was home tonight in my own bed," he said. "It's Friday night in Wisconsin that's fish fry night. You now, I really wish I was back home. So hopefully we'll get back home soon, but in the mean time, this is up to the governor.

Story source: WILL