What do the Wisconsin Senate Democrats hope to accomplish by being absent from the Senate and out of the state? Publicly they claim they fled the state in mid-February in order to prevent the Senate Republicans from passing a bill that would reduce the collective bargaining rights of public employees. In order for the Republicans to pass the bill, three-fifths of the Senators need to be present to constitute a quorum for a vote for passage. There are 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats, meaning that at least one Democrat must be present in the Senate to meet the quorum requirements. A majority of the Republicans present in the Senate may compel the attendance of absent Democrats, but it is unclear whether this is legally possible, as the Democrats are in Illinois where the rules do not necessarily apply (see Joint Rule 11).
Currently, the Democrats are achieving their goal of preventing the Senate Republicans from passing the bill. They claim they will only return if Republicans compromise and remove the collective bargaining portion of the bill. However, there is a problem with this strategy: the Senate Republicans cannot credibly commit to such a compromise. Even if the Republicans promised to negotiate, as soon as the Senate Democrats were present in the Senate, the Republicans could simply pass the bill as it stands (as Republican Governor Walker unknowingly pointed out to a prank caller).
Perhaps the Democrats thought that by leaving the state of Wisconsin, this would draw a great deal of media attention to the issue, the public would turn against the bill, and the Republicans would back down. Public opinion polls have suggested that the bill and the Governor are now unpopular in the state and today we have learned that this has finally persuaded Republicans to offer a compromise. However, once again, even if the Republicans offer to compromise, can they credibly commit to this compromise when they simply can pass the bill as is?
In the next few weeks it will be interesting to see if the Senate Republicans actually make concessions regarding the bill. Regardless of which version of the bill passes, I believe the Senate Republicans will in retrospect see this event as a misstep on their part. They may eventually pass some version of their coveted anti-labor bill, but now the Democrats can make sure they suffer for it in November 2012.