Wisconsin's Republican governor said he's confident Democrats who left the state to avoid voting on a bill removing union rights will return within a day or two, calling the boycott a "stunt."
Democrats who left the state on Thursday before the Senate session started said they want Gov. Scott Walker to meet with them to discuss concessions after three straight days of protests that brought tens of thousands of people to the Capitol building.
Walker said Democrats can offer amendments to change the bill and talk with him, but he won't concede on his plan to remove collective bargaining rights for most state and local government workers.
Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach said he's disappointed with the comments. Erpenbach said senators had been in Illinois but they were on the move Thursday.
Walker issued a statement Thursday after the Democrats failed to show up for the vote, causing an indefinite delay. Thousands of protesters filled the halls of the Capitol urging rejection of the bill, which Walker said is needed to deal with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Walker said Democrats should return out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process. He said their actions are disrespectful to public employees and taxpayers they represent.
Erpenbach said they won't come back until Walker is willing to negotiate.
Walker said he received 8,000 e-mails Thursday from people on both sides of the bill. But he said senators need to get back to Madison to do their jobs.
"We're certainly looking at all legal options out there, but I have faith that after they do their stunt for a day or two, it's more about theatrics than anything else, that they'll come back and realize again that they're elected to do a job," Walker said. "And I think even people who may be up in the air about whether or not they should vote for or against the measure, I think those people by and large expect their senators to show up."
No Democrats were present at the start of the state Senate session shortly after 11 a.m. to vote on a bill stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights.
The Senate sergeant at arms immediately went to look for members in the Capitol, but to no avail.
Republicans called the action shocking and shameful.
"I don't know what the logic is to say, 'No, we're not going to show up and vote.' That's not democracy, that's not what this building is about; that's not what this chamber is about," said Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
Police officers were looking for the lawmakers who were ordered to attend a vote. The absent lawmakers were ultimately found in a Rockford, Ill., hotel on Thursday, just over the border from where Wisconsin State Patrol troopers would be able to bring them back for a vote.
Earlier Thursday, Erpenbach said the group of 14 Democratic lawmakers are boycotting the vote. They said they want to force negotiations over the Republican-backed bill.
Erpenbach said the plan is to slow down the bill because it's "tearing the state apart."
"It's not like we're trying to make history or it's some sort of high school prank here. We're very sincere in our efforts to try and make sure everybody has a chance to speak their mind on this," Erpenbach said in a phone interview.
"There's been tens of thousands of citizens who have protested the legislation the governor has been tone deaf to them. We're providing them an opportunity to be heard," said Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, from Illinois.
Erpenbach said he isn't sure how long lawmakers will remain out of state.
"I don't know, that's a great question. I don't know how long it's going to take, but at the very least we've got to realize the governor has got to talk with people who disagree with him," Erpenbach said.
But the question is whether all senators will agree. Just before leaving the city Thursday, Janesville Sen. Tim Cullen expressed concerns.
"I think protests are appropriate at this time, not just by those who are here but by those who are elected to be here. So I don't object to the idea of protests. I oppose the thing as strongly as they do, but I don't understand the endgame," Cullen said.
As of Thursday night, Senate Democrats had left Rockford and were at a hotel in Freeport, Ill.
The Wisconsin Senate adjourned for the day Thursday after minority Democrats failed to show up for a vote on the contentious collective bargaining bill.