By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2011; 10:24 PM
A chance to end the legislative standoff that has paralyzed the Wisconsin government for weeks seemed to slip away Monday after Gov. Scott Walker (R) accused the leader of the state Senate Democrats of blocking negotiations to end the impasse.
After some of the 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state to block a vote on the governor's proposal to sharply curtail collective-bargaining rights for government workers in Wisconsin signaled their possible willingness to return, Walker called a news conference at which he accused the legislators of being the biggest impediments to ending the stalemate.
The governor said members of his staff seemed to be making progress in negotiations with some of the absent Democrats, only to have Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller stand in the way. He also accused Miller of being in the pocket of organized labor, whose leaders Walker blames for escalating the conflict into a national drama.
"Senator Miller is misleading the public, just like he misled us," Walker said, adding that Miller was also "misleading his own caucus."
The governor's comments came after at least one Democrat said Monday morning that he and his colleagues were on the verge of returning to the state because they were sure that voters would consider the passage of Walker's "budget repair" measure an overreach that would quickly weaken Republicans' hold on power in Wisconsin.
But the governor's comments later in the day seemed only to deepen the Democrats' resolve to stay away until he gives in on his demand to end collective bargaining for public employees.
"The bottom line is the governor is still intent on breaking the backs of workers' unions and assaulting the middle class," state Sen. Robert Jauch said after Walker's comments to reporters. "You don't go to peace talks with a grenade. And that's what he threw at his press conference."
In a statement, Miller said: "I would hope as we move forward the Governor and Republican leaders will spend less time at press conferences and more time on the phone or at meetings pursuing a resolution to our differences."
The fight over Walker's bill has drawn national attention as labor leaders and many independent analysts say it would have the effect of killing public employee unions in the state. Similar proposals have surfaced in other states, including Indiana and Ohio.
In Wisconsin, the measure has ignited a firestorm of protests, and tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators have descended on the capitol in Madison over the past few weeks to oppose it.
If the exiled Democrats return, Republicans - who hold a majority in the Senate - are expected to pass the measure. Walker has said the would give him and local leaders the power to cut the pay of public employees and allow the state to close its budget deficit without raising taxes.
On Friday, the governor began the process of laying off 1,500 state employees, notifying unions that pink slips will go out in 15 days. He also said that layoffs would occur in a month if the bill is not passed.
In the past, Walker has said that his measure to do away with most collective-bargaining rights is non-negotiable - a posture that apparently has hurt him in public opinion surveys. In a series of polls, voters in Wisconsin and nationwide say they oppose the governor's attack on collective bargaining, even as people agree that public employees should sacrifice some of their pay to help cash-strapped states balance their budgets. State employees in Wisconsin have offered to make significant pay concessions.
In his news conference, Walker reiterated his stance that the measure is not open to compromise, but he added that his staff had been in discussion with Democrats about how the "mechanics" of the measure would work, to perhaps make it more acceptable. Although those talks have at times been promising, he said, they have been frustrated by Democratic leadership.
Jauch said the bill should eventually receive a vote but he did not guess when the Democrats would return to allow it.
"It was an almost spontaneous event when we left Wisconsin," he said. "We always planned to come back. Never in our wildest dreams could we imagine this historical outpouring of support from the public."