MADISON, Wis. -

Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate have voted to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from public workers after discovering a way to bypass the chamber's missing Democrats.

READ: Thousands Of Protesters Converge On State Capitol

All 14 Senate Democrats left the state nearly three weeks ago, preventing the chamber from having enough members present to consider Gov. Scott Walker's so-called "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 on Wednesday split from the legislation the proposal to curtail union rights, which spends no money, and a special conference committee of state lawmakers approved the bill a short time later.

The lone Democrat present on the conference committee, Rep. Tony Barca, shouted that the surprise meeting was a violation of the state's open meetings law but Republicans voted over his objections.

The Senate then convened within minutes and hastily passed the bill 18-1 without discussion or debate.

Republican Sen. Dale Schultz of Richland Center voted no on the bill.

"The Assembly is going to have to vote on this tomorrow, and we'll have to see what happens there. I don't think this issue is going to go away. The people who have come to the Capitol here are very passionate, and I think it's not likely the 100,000 people who were here a few days ago are suddenly going to forget this issue," Schultz said.

Republicans left the building under heavy police presence as protesters began to flood the Capitol.

Spectators in the gallery screamed "You are cowards" and "Shame."

About 200 protesters chanted "occupy" and "general strike" as they vowed to remain inside the Wisconsin Capitol after the vote by the state Senate Wednesday night set off the latest protests. Protesters have gathered the past three weeks, often in the thousands, to protest the measure proposed by Walker.

Some protesters tried to gain access to the Senate gallery during the vote, but were denied access by Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs. Protest organizer Erika Wolfe told the crowd that legal options were being evaluated.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the Senate passed the bill because "the people elected us to do a job, and just because the Senate Democrats won't do theirs doesn't mean we won't do ours."

Fitzgerald said three legislative agencies have said every item in the bill follows the letter of the law.

But Democrats believe the Senate's actions were in violation of the state's open meetings law, and they have been crying foul on it all night.

The statute requires 24 hour notice before any meeting or two hour notice if "good cause" is given. There was just less than two hours notice given of the conference committee, so some legal challenges are expected.

The governor praised Republicans in the state Senate on their vote Wednesday night. Walker said the Democrats were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused.

"In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government," Walker said in a statement.

The Assembly will be in special session at 11 a.m. on Thursday to take up the conference committee bill, which includes taking away most collective bargaining rights from most state employees. That's the last step before the bill can go to Walker for his signature.

Senate Democrats React To Vote

When word came that Republicans were rushing a vote Wednesday night, Senate Democrats reacted quickly.

Some considered coming back to the Capitol, but others were steadfast in their desire to stay put in Illinois.

The 14 Democratic Senators said the move by Republicans is a betrayal of the working class in Wisconsin.

While it's unclear when the lawmakers will make their return to Wisconsin, Sen. Chris Larson said he actually started driving back to Madison, then turned around after realizing the vote had been made.