In a surprise move, Wisconsin Senate Republicans last night used some legislative maneuvering to pass a bill stripping most public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights. But it looks like the skirmishing over the bill--a forthright challenge to the power of organized labor, that in recent weeks had brought throngs of protesters to the state capitol--isn't over by a long shot.
After the jump, you can read the rundown on the next steps on the battle over the Wisconsin union legislation.
Does this mean the bill is now law?
It still needs to be passed by the Republican-controlled Assembly -- which has been considering it this afternoon -- and signed by Governor Scott Walker, its major backer. Walker has said he'll sign it "as quickly as I can legally."
UPDATE: The Assembly passed the bill around 4:40pm EST.
What recourse would the bill's opponents have at that point?
Democratic lawmakers and others opposed to the bill have already raised several objections to the way in which the bill was passed. They're also talking about recalling some of the Republican senators who voted for the bill.
"This could be a drawn-out process," Jay Heck of Common Cause Wisconsin told The Lookout.
State Rep. Peter Barca, a Democrat, has already filed a formal complaint with the Dane County district attorney, charging that the conference committee meeting Senate leaders used to pass the bill last night violated Wisconsin's open meetings laws. Those laws require 24 hours notice for any public meeting--and in this instance, legislators were given just two hours' advance notice. The DA's office has reportedly already interviewed Barca about his complaint.
Is that the best argument the bill's foes have got?
Senate rules require a quorum of 20 senators to pass any bill with fiscal implications. That's why the Senate Democrats have been cooling their heels in Illinois--to deny a quorum to the 19 Republicans in the chamber. Republicans responded last night by stripping out many of the bill's fiscal aspects, so as to focus on the core issue of ending collective bargaining rights for many state employees. The lawmakers then passed what they deemed a non-fiscal bill, which doesn't require that 20-person quorum. Tamara Packard, a lawyer who worked with Rep. Barca on the open-meetings complaint, told The Lookout that some opponents of the bill were planning a formal challenge on the fiscal issue.
Formal court challenges based on the open-meetings law or on the fiscal issue could come from either the Dane County district attorney, a Democrat, or from outside opponents of the bill. The case could ultimately be decided by the state Supreme Court. Its seven Justices are officially nonpartisan, but court-watchers say four are conservatives who could be expected to side with Walker and the GOP, while three are liberals likely to back Democrats and the unions.
That race, which could help determine the court's partisan breakdown, is shaping up as a major political fight. "There's speculation that this will be a referendum on Scott Walker," Heck told The Lookout, adding that Kloppenberg's chances have likely been given a boost by the controversy over the bill, and the hit that Walker's popularity has suffered in recent weeks.
If the courts stay out of the fight, the bill's opponents would have little recourse other than trying to repeal the bill. What about this recall idea?
Wisconsin Democrats have announced that they plan to launch recall drives against the eight GOP senators who voted for the bill and are eligible for recall, having been in office for at least a year. A recall would require Democratic activists to gather around 15,000 signatures in each district, then win a majority of votes for recall at an election six weeks later. Only two state lawmakers have been recalled in Wisconsin history. They've said they plan to try to recall Walker once he's eligible next year.
What happens in Wisconsin is likely to have national implications. If Walker and the GOP succeed in stripping public-sector workers of their collective bargaining powers--and if that effort is seen in the long-run as politically successful--then other state lawmakers (in Ohio, for instance) could be emboldened to try to do the same. (Elizabeth Wrigley-Field of Madison, Wis. is escorted out of the Wisconsin State Capitol Assembly Room lobby Thursday, March 10, 2011, in Madison, by law enforcement personnel after spending the night in the room with demonstrators opposed to Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill.: John Hart/AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal)