Surprising their opponents, and everyone else, with a procedural manuever, Republicans in the Wisconsin state Senate passed a controversial bill Wednesday night that curtails public employees' ability to collectively bargain with the state government.

The bill — which has received national attention for nearly a month — was passed without Democrats being present, as the Republicans found a procedural method for bringing it to the floor. The bill now returns to the state assembly, where it is expected to pass.


Republicans passed the bill 18-1, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The 14 Democrats in the state senate had prevented the bill from being taken up for weeks by fleeing to Illinois.

"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused," new GOP Gov. Scott Walker said in a statement. "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."

In its original form, a quorum of 20 senators needed to be present to bring up the bill, because it was attached to fiscal legislation. But a legislative committee removed from the collective bargaining measure from the rest of the legislation. Not being a fiscal measure,  the collective bargaining bill did not need 20 senators present to come to the floor.

The state assembly passed the comprehensive bill, and is expected to approve the union-only provision.

The vote is an apparent victory for Walker, who had been stymied on the bill while taking salvos from waves of pro-union protesters and national Democrats, who criticized the bill as unfair to the working class.

The Wisconsin struggle has become a symbol of the national debate over federal debts and deficits. President Obama has called the proposal an "assault" on unions while leading Republicans have lauded the plan as a bold move to rein in government costs. 

Thousands of protesters barged into the state capitol building in response to the move and Democratic groups accused Republicans of violating a Wisconsin law that requires some public organizations announce a meeting 24 hours in advance.

"Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin’s working families in the dark of night," said the Wisconsin AFL-CIO in a statement. "Walker and the Republicans acted in violation of state open meetings laws, and tonight’s events have demonstrated they will do or say anything to pass their extreme agenda that attacks Wisconsin’s working families."

One Democrat from the state senate, told The Journal-Sentinel on Wednesday that Republicans will pay for passing the bill without members of his party.

"Right now, I'm trying to figure out what the hell they're going to do," Chris Larson said in an interview. "I'm not going to be the 20th vote. This is on the Republicans' heads right now. If they decide to kill the middle class, it's on them.

"Everyone who is party to this travesty is writing their political obituary," he added.

-- This post was updated on 3/10/2011 at 8:09 a.m.