Wisconsin police hunt Dem. leader, protests continue

Scott Bauer
The Associated Press
Friday, February 18, 2011; 12:25 PM

MADISON, Wis. - The Wisconsin State Patrol was dispatched Friday to find a Democratic state senator who fled the Capitol to delay the near-certain passage of a bill to end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for public workers, a measure that's attracted thousands of protesters for four days.

With Democrats saying they won't return before Saturday, it was unclear when the Senate would be able to begin debating Gov. Scott Walker's measure meant to ease the state's budget woes. Democrats who disappeared Thursday at first kept their whereabouts secret, then started to emerge to give interviews and fan the protests.

Senate Republicans convened briefly Friday morning to renew a call to find the Democrats, then recessed. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told reporters he has asked the governor to send two state troopers to Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller's suburban Madison home. He said he believes Miller may be there - he did not elaborate on why he thought that - and Walker agreed to dispatch the officers.

Early Friday, an Associated Press reporter went to Miller's home in Monona, but no one answered the door. In an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," Miller said the Democrats "had left the state so we were out of reach of the Wisconsin State Patrol."

The Wisconsin Constitution prohibits police from arresting state lawmakers while the Legislature is in session, except in cases of felonies, breaches of the peace or treason. Fitzgerald said he's not looking to have Miller arrested, but he wants to send a signal about how serious things are becoming in the Capitol.

Fitzgerald said he spoke with Miller by phone late Thursday night and asked him to bring his caucus back to Madison for a vote on Friday morning, but Miller refused. Meanwhile, the protests are growing so large that Capitol workers and lawmakers' staff cannot safely move through the halls, he said.

The situation has become "a powder keg," he said.

"I'm starting to hold Sen. Miller responsible for this," Fitzgerald said. "He shut down democracy."

The protests have attracted teachers, grade school children, college students and other workers over four days. Police report they have been largely peaceful, with only nine people cited for minor acts of civil disobedience as of Thursday night.

While the Senate was paralyzed, the Assembly met briefly on Friday. Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said the Assembly would vote on the bill later in the day after Democrats have had a chance to meet privately.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca vowed to fight to the "bitter end," in a speech delivered on the Assembly floor after Republicans had turned off the microphones and left.

"This is wrong!" Barca shouted to wild applause from the packed gallery. "Desperately wrong and we will not stand for it!"

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