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Protesters continue to flood Wisconsin Capitol amid budget impasse
Some of the protesters' signs pictured Walker alongside Adolf Hitler and Egypt's ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
"I certainly acknowledge their right to be heard," Walker said in his office, adding, "I particularly want to thank the 300,000 state and local workers from across Wisconsin who, unlike those here today, didn't skip out on work and showed up at their jobs."
Republicans say that public-sector employees have become a privileged class that overburdened taxpayers - including many working in the private sector who have seen their own salaries and benefits shrinking - can no longer afford to subsidize.
The Wisconsin standoff quickly became a national debate, drawing in politicians from around the country.
"The big public employee unions have just run the table. It is outrageous and the gig is up," said former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who tangled with his state's employees when he was in office and who is now considering a bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
With President Obama's political operation lending support to the protesters, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) accused the president's team of "colluding with special-interest allies across the country to demagogue reform-minded governors who are making the tough choices that the president is avoiding."
In Richmond, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) released a video of solidarity with Walker. "I know it's tough to tell hardworking state employees they've got to do more with less," McDonnell said. "I've done it in Virginia, and Scott Walker has had the fortitude early in his term to tell that to the people of Wisconsin."
McDonnell has recommended requiring employees to start kicking in for their retirement. Employee opposition is one reason why the legislature has so far balked at enacting the change. Virginia public employees are not unionized.
Meanwhile, smaller protests are also stirring in Ohio, where another new Republican governor, John Kasich, has proposed limiting collective bargaining rights for state employees. "I don't favor the right to strike of any public employee, okay?" Kasich said in December. "They've got good jobs, high pay, good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?"
This kind of protest was not entirely unexpected. During last year's elections, Walker and other Republican candidates - and even some Democrats, such as New York's new governor, Andrew M. Cuomo - made it clear that curbing public employee compensation would be a priority as they seek to deal with their states' fiscal crises.
After the Republicans made big gains in November up and down the ballot, former House speaker Newt Gingrich went so far as to predict on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "the scale of change coming to government workers is going to be so great that you may well see, in places like Sacramento or Albany, New York, very serious unrest by union members who are offended at the idea that they should actually earn in proportion to the taxpayer and not be the new special class in America, which is what they've become over the last 20 years."
But that it would have happened first in Madison is, in many ways, both unlikely and ironic. The city was the birthplace in 1932 of what would become the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest public employee union; in 1959, Wisconsin was the first state government to give its workers collective bargaining rights.
Staff writers Peter Whoriskey in Washington and Rosalind S. Helderman in Richmond contributed to this report.