[UPDATED: I wrote this quickly and edited for clarity. John McCormack has more context .]
Up to now, the Budget Repair Bill in Wisconsin has been frozen because all fourteen Senate Democrats will not return to the state to negotiate it. There's no quorum -- the bill, which consists of many fiscal components, can't pass.
Republicans in the Senate are trying an end run around that now. They have called a conference committee meeting -- which is open to the media -- where the key fiscal component of the bill, a refinancing provision, will be stripped out. The collective bargaining component, the pay cuts, pension reform -- all still there. That would allow the stripped-down bill to pass the Senate with no Democrats present.
This is incoherent in a number of ways. First, Gov. Scott Walker's argument for not putting the collective bargaining and union dues/formation reforms on the negotiating table has been, since the beginning, that they were necessary for letting local governments balance their budgets. They are, technically, not "fiscal components" -- they just deal with huge sums of money. Second, Republicans punted on a voting reform bill two weeks ago because they did not want to split the fiscal portions of the bill -- funding for IDs, for those who couldn't afford them -- from the rest of it.
This is a desperation move. It's happening, say Democrats, before they read the new bill. Obviously, had Democrats not fled the state, the un-changed legislation would have passed last month. But this happens a day after e-mails from the governor's office floated the possibility -- which Democrats didn't quite buy -- of negotiation on the collective bargaining parts of the bill.
UPDATE: The meeting just ended with Republicans passing the rule by a 4-2, partisan margin. The new bill, said Senate GOP Leader Scott Fitzgerald, "would not trigger the special quorum argument of Article VIII, Second 8."
Democratic House Leader Peter Barca demanded that Fitzgerald explain what was being moved around in the legislation.
"This is the bill that passed the Assembly," said Fitzgerald. "There's nothing different from that."
"Nothing different?" said Barca.
"They just removed items," said Fitzgerald. "There's nothing new."
Barca exploded. "This is clearly a violating of the open meetings law!" he said, as crowds audibly chanted "Shame! Shame!" through the doors. "This is not a rule, this is a law!"
UPDATE 7:22 p.m. ET: The Senate held a quick session and passed the bill, 18-1, with wavering Sen. Dale Schultz voting no.
The amended legislation goes to the Assembly, where Republicans, as ever, have the votes to push it through.
UPDATE 7:30: Matt Miller, leader of the Senate Democrats, issues a statement:
In thirty minutes, 18 State Senators undid fifty years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten. Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people. Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.
The lede: They're coming back.
UPDATE: Miller's office has issued a new statement removing the word "tomorrow" and clarifying that the Democrats will not return right now.