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Obama joins Wisconsin's budget battle, opposing Republican anti-union bill

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The smell of sweat and pizza drifted through the building's marbled halls. A drum circle formed inside the massive rotunda, and scores of university students danced jubilantly to the rhythm. There were clanging cowbells and twanging guitars, trumpets and vuvuzelas.

Outside, another throng had gathered to cheer and chant before the television cameras, and to break constantly into the crowd's favorite anthem: "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" And everywhere were signs, each with its own dose of disdain for Walker's budget bill: "Scotty, Scotty, flush your bill down the potty." "Walker's Plantation, open for business." "You will never break our union."

Many of the protesters, including Laurie Bauer, 51, had been on hand since Tuesday, with no plans to leave until the issue is resolved.

"It's one thing about the money. We'd be willing to negotiate the money," said Bauer, a library media specialist at Parker High School in Janesville. But "he's trying to take away our human rights. . . . I don't want my kids living in a state like that."

Loren Mikkelson, 37, held the same position: Budget cuts are negotiable, but collective -bargaining rights are not.

"We can meet in the middle. We're willing to give. . . . He's acting like we've never given anything. We've given," said Mikkelson, a airfield maintenance worker who said he has endured furloughs and pay cuts in his county job. "We just want a voice."

Implications for Obama

The state-level battles and Obama's decision to step into the fray illustrate how the budget choices state leaders are facing probably will have direct implications for the president's political standing.

Wisconsin and Ohio are likely battlegrounds for Obama's re-election effort. Mobilizing Organizing for America around the budget fights could help kick-start a political machinery that has been largely stagnant since the 2008 campaign and reignite union activists who have expressed some disappointment with Obama.

But by leaping in to defend public workers, the president risks alienating swing voters in those states and nationwide who are sympathetic to GOP governors perceived as taking on special interests to cut spending.

Obama, in his comments to the Wisconsin TV reporter, tried to walk a fine line - noting that he, too, has taken on the unions.

"We had to impose a freeze on pay increases on federal workers for the next two years as part of my overall budget freeze," he said. "I think those kinds of adjustments are the right thing to do."

Walker, meanwhile, called his proposals "modest" and appeared to be trying to show distance between public employees and workers employed by private companies, who he said expressed support for his policies during visits he made to manufacturing plants this week.

"Many of the companies I went by, like so many others across the state, don't have pensions, and the 401(k)s they have over the last year or two, they've had to suspend the employer contribution," Walker told Milwaukee radio station WTMJ. "So, not a lot of sympathy from these guys in private-sector manufacturing companies who I think reflect a lot of the workers in the state who say what we're asking for is pretty modest."

dennisb@washpost.com wallstenp@washpost.com

Wallsten reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher in Washington contributed to this report.


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