MADISON, Wis. — Swelling crowds of protesters who have descended on Wisconsin's Capitol in hopes of halting a Republican effort to end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for public workers steeled themselves for a long fight, buoyed by Democrats' decision to flee to avoid the measure's near-certain passage.
With Democrats saying they won't return before Saturday, it was unclear when the Senate would be able to begin debating the measure meant to ease the state's budget woes. Democrats who disappeared Thursday at first kept their whereabouts secret, then started to emerge to give interviews and fan the protests.
While the Senate was paralyzed, the Assembly met on Friday. Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, said the Assembly would vote on the bill later in the day after Democrats have a chance to meet privately. Opponents to the bill packed the Assembly gallery as Democratic lawmakers introduced protesters from their districts and thanked them for their efforts. The crowd applauded and waved their hands silently.
Several hundred protesters were in the building early in the morning, with the ranks expected to swell as the day progressed. Many of them spent the night in the Capitol and another large rally was planned around noon.
As many as 25,000 students, teachers and prison guards have turned out at the Capitol this week to protest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the building's hallways, sitting cross-legged across the floor and making it difficult to move from room to room. Some have brought along sleeping bags and stayed through the night. Union organizers expected yet more to gather Friday.
Neil Graupner, a 19-year-old technical college student from Madison, said he was planning to stay until the matter is settled.
"The fact that the Democrats have walked out, it shows they're listening to us," he said late Thursday as he prepared to spend the night at the Capitol.
The protesters' chants of "Kill the bill!" and "Recall Walker now!" could be heard throughout the day and long past dark. They beat on drums and carried signs deriding Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his plan to end collective bargaining for state, county and local workers, except for police, firefighters and the state patrol.
Hundreds of teachers have joined the protests by calling in sick, forcing school districts — including the state's largest, Milwaukee Public Schools — to cancel classes.
One sign taped to a statue outside the Capitol compared the governor to former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down last week after weeks of mass protests against his three-decade rule. The sign read, "Impeach Scott Mubarak!"
Despite the groundswell of support, it seems Democrats are merely delaying the inevitable — Republicans say they have the votes to pass the bill — yet the protesters are undeterred.
"I always expect the worst, but at the least I figure this would lead to such larger strikes that it would be a bad move for Republicans and Scott Walker," Graupner said.
In an interview with Milwaukee television station WTMJ, President Barack Obama compared Walker's bill to "an assault on unions."
Senate Republicans planned to try for a vote again Friday. With 19 seats, they hold a majority in the 33-member chamber, but they are one vote short of the number necessary to conduct business. The GOP needs at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. The measure needs 17 votes to pass.
Speaking on CBS' "The Early Show" on Friday morning, Walker urged the Democrats to return to Madison and face the vote.
"The state senators who are hiding out down in Illinois should show up for work, have their say, have their vote, add their amendments, but in the end, we've got a $3.6 billion budget deficit we've got to balance."
The Assembly also planned to be in session Friday and could take up the bill first if the Senate remains in limbo.
Senate rules and the state constitution say absent members can be compelled to appear, but it does not say how.
"We left the state, so we were out of the reach of the Wisconsin state patrol, which has the authority to round us up and bring us back to the legislature," state Sen. Mark Miller told ABC's "Good Morning America" from an undisclosed location Friday.
State Sen. Tim Cullen said he and other Democrats planned to stage their boycott until Saturday to give the public more time to speak out against the bill.
"The plan is to try and slow this down because it's an extreme piece of legislation that's tearing this state apart," said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who was with Democratic senators in northern Illinois on Thursday before they dispersed.
Walker, who took office last month, called the boycott a "stunt." He vowed not to concede.
"It's more about theatrics than anything else," Walker said.
Some Democrats elsewhere applauded the developments as a long-awaited sign that their party was fighting back against the Republican wave created by November's midterm election.
"I am glad to see some Democrats, for a change, with a backbone. I'm really proud to hear that they did that," said Democratic state Sen. Judy Eason McIntyre of Oklahoma, another state where Republicans won the governorship in November and also control both legislative chambers.
Thursday's events were reminiscent of a 2003 dispute in Texas, where Democrats twice fled the state to prevent adoption of a redistricting bill designed to give Republicans more seats in Congress. The bill passed a few months later.
The proposal marks a dramatic shift for Wisconsin, which passed a comprehensive collective bargaining law in 1959 and was the birthplace of the national union representing all nonfederal public employees.
In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage — increases Walker calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector.
Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve — $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.