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70,000 liven Madison protests

Democrats still hiding; governor not budging

– A state Capitol thrown into political gridlock swelled for a fifth day Saturday with nearly 70,000 protesters. Supporters of Republican efforts to scrap the union rights of state workers challenged pro-labor demonstrators face to face for the first time.

As GOP leaders insisted again there was no room for compromise, Democrats remained in hiding.

A few dozen police officers stood between supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker on the east lawn of the Capitol and the much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators. The protest was peaceful as both sides exchanged chants of “Pass the bill! Pass the bill!” and “Kill the bill! Kill the bill!”

“Go home!” union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine-parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read “If you don’t like it, quit” on one side, and “If you don’t like that, try you’re fired” on the other.

The governor set off the protests earlier last week by pushing a measure that would require government workers to contribute more to health care and pension costs and largely eliminate collective bargaining rights.

Walker says concessions are needed to deal with the projected $3.6 billion shortfall and to avert layoffs.

“We did have an election and Scott Walker won,” said Deborah Arndt, 53, of Sheboygan Falls. “I think our governor will stand strong.” At a rally organized by Tea Party Patriots and Americans for Prosperity, supporters of Walker carried signs with fresh messages: “Your Gravy Train Is Over … Welcome to the Recession” and “Sorry, We’re Late Scott. We Work for a Living.”

“We pay the bills!” a tea party favorite, Herman Cain, yelled to cheers. “This is why you elected Scott Walker. and he’s doing his job. … Wisconsin is broke. My question for the other side is, ‘What part of “broke” don’t you understand?’ ”

Nearby, nearly two dozen cabs blocked a major intersection near the Capitol. The driver of the lead cab leaned out of the window and played a trumpet, while others tried to honk their car horns in sync with a chant from pro-labor protesters: “This is what democracy looks like.”

The Senate majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, affirmed that Republicans have not been swayed by protesters.

“The bill is not negotiable,” Fitzgerald said inside a guarded room at the Capitol. “The bill will pass as is.”

Fitzgerald said Republicans have the votes needed to pass the bill as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. Without them, there isn’t the quorum required to vote on legislation.

Democrats offered again to agree to parts of Walker’s proposal that would double workers’ health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained rights to negotiate as a union.

Fitzgerald said he was unimpressed given that the GOP has rejected the offer for months. Restrictions on collective bargaining rights are needed so local governments and the state will have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.

Walker, who was spending time with his family Saturday and wasn’t expected to make an appearance at the tea party-organized rally, also rejected the Democrats offer. Madison police estimated 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol with up to 8,000 more inside.

The Dane County sheriff, Dave Mahoney, had planned to add 60 deputies to the 100 who patrolled during the week. But the Madison police spokesman, Joel DeSpain, said there had been no arrests or problems.

Doctors from numerous hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes covering public employees’ absences.