Wisconsin State Sens. Luther Olsen, right, Shelia Harsdorf, left, and...

Wisconsin State Sens. Luther Olsen, right, Shelia Harsdorf, left, and Terry Moulton, all Republicans, leave the Senate chambers Wednesday after Republicans in the Senate voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers. Credit: AP

MADISON, Wis. -- The Wisconsin Senate succeeded in voting Wednesday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers, after Republicans discovered a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats and approve an explosive proposal that has rocked the state and unions nationwide.

"You are cowards!" spectators in the Senate gallery screamed as lawmakers voted. Within hours, a crowd of a few hundred protesters inside the Capitol had grown to several thousand, more than had been in the building at any point during weeks of protests.

"The whole world is watching!" they shouted as they pressed up against the heavily guarded entrance to the Senate chamber.

All 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's "budget-repair bill" -- a proposal introduced to plug a $137-million budget shortfall.

The Senate requires a quorum to take up any measures that spend money. But Republicans took all the spending measures out of the legislation Wednesday and a special committee of lawmakers from both the Senate and Assembly approved the revised bill a short time later.

The unexpected yet surprisingly simple procedural move ended a stalemate that had threatened to drag on indefinitely. Until the stunning vote, it had appeared the standoff would persist until Democrats returned to Madison from their self-imposed exile.

"In 30 minutes, 18 state senators undid 50 years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller. "Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people."

The State Assembly previously approved the original proposal and was set to consider the new measure today.

The lone Democrat on the special committee, Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, shouted that the meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law. The Senate's chief clerk said hours later the meeting was properly held.

The Senate convened within minutes of the committee meeting and passed the measure 18-1 without discussion or debate.

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