Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of The Washington Post, misidentified Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. This version has been corrected.
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Democratic legislators embracing tactic to gain leverage: Fleeing

The massive protests in Wisconsin's capital prompted by Gov. Scott Walker's bill to cut state employees' benefits and eliminate most of their union bargaining rights has sparked smaller demonstrations across the country.

Alston said Wednesday that this was a difficult decision for her and that she had not been ready to vote, but that she would no longer boycott. Fellow Democratic Del. Jill P. Carter said she stayed away in hopes that House leaders would make concessions on her other legislative priorities.

Although unusual, the idea of absentee lawmakers - Republicans and Democrats - is hardly unprecedented. Perhaps the most high-profile example was in 2003, when more than 50 Texas Democrats crossed state lines to stop a GOP plan to redraw the state's congressional boundaries. The tactic failed.

Examples date back more than a century. In Illinois in 1839, state Rep. Abraham Lincoln - yes, that Abraham Lincoln - orchestrated a walkout to block a Democratic bill requiring the central bank to make payments in gold or silver instead of paper money.

(When he and his fellow Whigs tried the same maneuver the following day, the House speaker locked them in, the story goes. So they tried unsuccessfully to block the vote by jumping out the window.)

And in 2005, Democrats in the Indiana House temporarily killed more than 100 bills, including some top priorities for the Republican majority, by boycotting a part of the legislative session.

The strategy is typically employed when emotions are running high, so it is not surprising that Democrats took a stand now, at a time of "existential crisis" for the American labor movement - a key part of their political base, said Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

"Whatever [the Democrats] feel about the specifics, this is an ally that's asking for a lifeline to be thrown," he said. But he said it leaves a bad taste in his mouth. "Nobody likes to lose. But sometimes you have to just go in there and accept the adverse vote, no matter how high the stakes are, and plan to get your revenge at the next election."

Staff writers John Wagner and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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