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Wis. Assembly passes union bill

MADISON, Wis. - Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly took the first significant action on their plan to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, abruptly passing the measure early Friday morning before sleep-deprived Democrats realized what was happening.

The vote ended three days of punishing debate in the Assembly. But the political standoff over the bill - and the monumental protests at the state Capitol against it - appear far from over.

The Assembly's vote sent the bill on to the Senate, but minority Democrats there have fled to Illinois to prevent a vote and say they won't return unless Republican Gov. Scott Walker agrees to discuss a compromise.

"This kind of solidifies our resolve," Democratic Sen. Chris Larson said of vote. "If we come back, they're going to ram this through without us having a say."

The governor didn't sound conciliatory Friday, saying during an afternoon appearance in Green Bay that although "we got to find a way to make it comfortable for those 14 senators to come back home," Republicans had no intention of backing off the main tenets of the bill.

Walker himself had raised the specter of layoff notices if the bill was not passed by Friday, contending the state would miss a deadline to refinance $165 million of debt. But the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said this week that the debt refinancing could be pushed as late as Tuesday to achieve Walker's desired savings.

Walker's proposal contains a number of provisions he says are designed to fill the state's $137 million deficit and lay the groundwork for fixing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall in the 2011-13 budget.

The flash point is language that would require public workers to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance and strip them of their right to collectively bargain benefits and work conditions.

Democrats and unions see the measure as an attack on workers' rights and an attempt to cripple union support for Democrats. Union leaders say they would make pension and health care concessions if they can keep their bargaining rights, but Walker has refused to compromise.

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