MADISON, WIS. - With tens of thousands of protesters jamming the Capitol and many Wisconsin schools closed for a third day, state troopers were enlisted Friday in the hunt for 14 Democratic state senators whose disappearance has prevented a vote on the new governor's controversial budget proposal.
Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan seeks to save the state money by curbing state employee benefits and putting tight restrictions on their collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin's deficit is projected at $30 million for the remainder of the current year; a far greater shortfall of $1.5 billion is expected next year, according to state figures.
"We're here today because we were elected to make tough decisions," Walker said at a news conference late Friday afternoon. He insisted that what he is asking is "a very modest request of our government workers."
He acknowledged, however, that he will not be able to do anything until the absent Democrats return. "You can't operate in a democracy if people don't show up," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) said he asked Walker to send two state troopers to Democratic leader Mark Miller's home. But the senators appear to have decamped to Illinois - putting them out of the troopers' reach.
One of those missing senators, Robert Jauch, spoke via cellphone from "someplace in the Land of Lincoln." He said he and his colleagues understood the need for budget cuts.
"We can vote for the budget in 30 minutes," Jauch said. "This is all about the rest of the bill, which eliminates 50 years of collective bargaining law in Wisconsin."
Walker scorned the lawmakers for their absence, saying, "You can't participate in democracy if you're not in the arena. The arena is not in Rockford, Illinois. The arena is in Madison, Wisconsin, and it's time for those state senators to come home."
The governor's plan to restrict collective bargaining rights is a key piece of his budget-cutting strategy. With nearly half of the state budget going toward aid to counties, cities and school districts, Walker argues that those localities must be allowed to cut the compensation of their unionized workers. The legislation eliminates the rights of most government workers to negotiate for anything but wages.
The repercussions, both sides agree, could spread as other states grapple with growing deficits and taxpayer anger, and as President Obama and Congress consider how to deal with the forces that are driving up federal spending.
Public employee unions and their Democratic allies accuse Walker of exploiting Wisconsin's fiscal problems to weaken both the bargaining leverage and the political clout of organized labor. Union membership in the United States has been on the decline for decades; last year, for the first time, government workers, rather than those in the private sector, accounted for a majority of all union members.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stood near the entrance of the state Capitol on Friday and said Walker is "standing in the doorway of our country's most basic values and cherished aspirations. Governor Walker, you're asking too much. We won't give it to you, and you can't take it away from us."
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.