Wisconsin protests: The lower house of the Wisconsin legislature—the one that's still in session—tries to make the best of…

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Feb. 22 2011 11:04 PM

Extended Stay

The lower house of the Wisconsin legislature—the one that's still in session—tries to make the best of it.

State assembly in session. Click image to expand.
Wisconsin state Assembly in session

MADISON, Wis.—It became clear early Tuesday that the state Assembly would probably meet all night. The lower house's Democrats did not flee the state, as their colleagues in the upper house did. (For their trouble, the senators spent part of the day avoiding Illinois Tea Party members who'd tracked them to an Extended Stay hotel.) They opted instead to engage in a de facto filibuster of the Budget Repair Act. A list of 100 potential amendments expanded to a rumored 200 or so amendments.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Republicans didn't hide their irritation. "We're going to be here probably for a couple of days if we have 200 amendments," said Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. "But let me know. Somebody give me the one that solves the budget crisis, because I'll move that one up to the front. We'll get it done and we won't have to do the rest of the amendments."

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At another point, Fitzgerald dismissed the Democrats' stack of amendments by saying, "They're trying to stall." Of course they were. Democratic staff explained the strategy: Talk endlessly, debating whatever could be brought to the floor. Stay as long as stamina allows. If fatigue wins out, let it, start withdrawing the remaining amendments, and let the vote go ahead, so the bill can languish in limbo while the absent senators traverse the Land of Lincoln.

There's a lot about this impasse that no one has seen before in Wisconsin. The Republicans had participated in a quasi-filibuster before, and Democrats had suffered through it. But this was different: Inside the Capitol, within hearing distance of the assembly floor, hundreds of screaming, drumming protesters were howling in support of the Democrats. At times, crowds formed on the Capitol lawn right outside the assembly chamber.

Still, it hardly compared to the stuff Democrats were hurling at Republicans inside the room. The session opened on a cordial note, with a bipartisan bill to salute Capitol police. As they did last week, Democrats wore Florida-orange-colored shirts with the slogan "Fighting for Working Families." The session then careened into a half-hour-long debate over whether Republicans had illegitimately brought forward a vote on Friday. Rep. Peter Barca, the Democrats' effervescent floor leader, issued a threat: He'd drawn up a measure for the removal of the speaker pro tem.

"If there's one more violation of these rules," said Barca, "we'll be debating it and we'll be voting on it! We will not stand for that kind of behavior." He spotted two members smiling. "You can laugh back there, gentlemen. You can laugh at these rule violations. Maybe I should come to your district and meet with your editorial board."

Rep. Kevin Peterson, one of the smilers, got up to respond. "Stop stalling with tactics on the floor," he sighed. "As soon as you come and do your jobs, then we can have time to debate in the districts."

"Thank you very much," said Barca, quietly. "I appreciate that. Because first of all it shows how ignorant of the law you are!" That last part was delivered with a full-throated shout, as if Barca had become trapped down a well and needed help from a passing helicopter. "It's illegal! Are you really that cavalier?"

Barca and two other Democrats unloaded on Republicans. One of those Democrats, Rep. Andy Jorgensen, turned red as he accused two Republicans of fist-bumping during the Friday vote. "This isn't a comedy club!" he said. "This isn't open mic night!"

It was a bizarre debate, one that Republicans weren't particularly interested in.

"We could stop the theatrics!" said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, a young-looking freshman member of the GOP caucus. "We could stop these back and forths, and these little games that politicians play, and we could say, 'No more! The consequences are too high!' "

So that debate ended, and the long parade of Democratic speeches began—complete with theatrics. In the seven hours of debate, they did not even make a dent in their amendments. They spent much of their time debating whether the budget repair bill could be referred to the labor committee, which would slow it down considerably. The point, sort of, was that they wanted more time to debate the bill in public. The real point was to draw the debate out. They could make soaring, 20-minute-plus speeches about the history of the labor movement; Republicans had to sit awkwardly, respectfully, tediously at their desks as protesters yelled through concrete at them.

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