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Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill
The battle in the states underscores the deep philosophical and political divisions between Obama and Republicans over how to control spending and who should bear the costs.
By aligning himself closely with unions, Obama is siding with a core piece of the Democratic Party base - but one that has chafed in recent weeks as the president has sought to rebuild his image among centrist voters by reaching out to business leaders.
Republicans see a chance to show that they're willing to make the tough choices to cut spending and to challenge the power of public-sector unions, which are the largest element of the labor movement and regularly raise tens of millions of dollars for Democratic campaigns.
Governors in both parties are slashing once-untouchable programs, including those covering education, health care for the poor and aid to local governments. Some states, such as Illinois, have passed major tax increases.
States face a collective budget deficit of $175 billion through 2013. Many experts say state tax revenue will not fully recover until the nation returns to full employment, which is not likely for several years.
Beyond their short-term fiscal problems, many states face pension and retiree health-care costs that some analysts say are unsustainable. Some states already are curtailing retirement benefits for new employees, although many analysts say it will take much more to bring their long-term obligations in line.
The huge debt burdens coupled with the impending termination of federal stimulus aid later this year have spurred talk of the need for a federal bailout. The White House has dismissed such speculation, saying states have the wherewithal to raise taxes, cut programs and renegotiate employee contracts to balance their books.
In Wisconsin, Democratic senators were able to block the bill's passage Thursday by not showing up for an 11 a.m. quorum call. Republicans hold a 19 to 14 edge in the Senate, but 20 votes are required for final passage.
"I don't know exactly where they are, but as I understand it, they're somewhere in Illinois," said Mike Browne, spokesman for Mark Miller, the state Senate's Democratic leader.
Democratic legislators in Texas employed a similar tactic in 2003 to try to stop a controversial redistricting plan that gave Republicans more seats in Congress. It passed a couple of months later.
The organized protest at the state Capitol drew an estimated 25,000 people, and long after the quorum call, thousands remained on the grounds, from children in strollers to old ladies in wheelchairs.
Inside the Capitol, the scene late Thursday night was part rock concert, part World Cup match, part high school pep rally and part massive slumber party.