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Why neither side is blinking in Wisconsin’s union-GOP budget showdown

With the Wisconsin labor unrest now into its second week, compromise seems to be only a distant possibility.

Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker isn’t budging on his vow to scale back collective bargaining to reduce the power of public employee unions and enable him to trim state spending. Thousands of pro-union protesters swarming the state Capitol in Madison are dug in just as hard.

With the Wisconsin labor unrest now into its second week, compromise seems to be only a distant possibility.

The Democratic contingent of 14 state senators remains in hiding outside the state, thus preventing Senate action on the governor’s bill, which Republicans have the votes to pass. Gov. Walker, for his part, warned Tuesday that layoffs of state workers may begin next week if the Democrats don’t return to the Capitol. He also sought to shore up public support for his “do not yield” position with an F.D.R.-style “fireside chat” Tuesday evening — in front of an unlit fireplace at the Capitol.

“The question right now is how deeply the two parties are embedded in their positions,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

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That’s not to say compromise has not been attempted. On Monday, GOP moderates offered a plan that would limit a collective bargaining ban to two years, to give the state time to climb out of its three-year, $3.74 billion budget deficit. Walker nixed that idea.

Unions have also conceded that to help the state out of a financial predicament, they will have to take cuts in benefits — shouldering a greater share of their health and pension costs, as the governor has proposed. They stop short, though, of giving up their ability to bargain behind closed doors for health and pension benefits. Walker’s plan would allow most public employee unions to negotiate only their pay via collective bargaining, and even there, it would cap wage increases at the consumer price index.

Walker is one of a new crop of Republican governors in Midwestern states, including Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, who see in their election victories a mandate to slash government spending and end generous benefits to civil service employees. Walker has the votes in state Senate and Assembly to do it, so why should he compromise? his backers ask. In some quarters, even the term “compromise” is insidious amid voter demands to get government spending at both the state and national level under control.

“When you say the word ‘compromise’ … a lot of Americans look up and go, ‘Uh-oh, they’re gonna sell me out,’ ” U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who has backed Walker in Wisconsin, said recently about the national budget debate. “And so finding common ground, I think, makes more sense.”

Fifty-six percent of Wisconsin residents say the 14 Democrats should return to Madison for the vote, but fewer, 43 percent, approve of Walker’s collective bargaining plan, according to a recent nonpartisan poll by the group WeAskAmerica. (A nationwide USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday found that 61 percent of Americans would oppose a law in their state similar to one being considered in Wisconsin, versus 33 percent who would favor such a law.)

The two sides’ stark ideological differences are making it hard to find middle ground, some observers say. The unions see themselves as standing up for the little guy against the influence of faceless corporations. The GOP lawmakers see themselves as defending small-government ideals and the principle that debt-reduction will drive job creation and raise wages and living standards for everybody.

On Tuesday, Senate Republicans moved ahead on a number of nonfiscal bills, as they still lacked a quorum for a vote on the collective bargaining change. Meanwhile, in the Assembly, a Republican super-majority faces Democrats who vow to introduce as many as 200 amendments to the bill, in a bid to stymie a final vote scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

More not-so-subtle gamesmanship is under way in an effort to get an up-or-down vote on Walker’s bill. Republicans are trying to entice at least one Democratic senator into returning to Madison by bringing up nonfiscal bills, which require a simple majority vote instead of a two-thirds supermajority vote needed for finance legislation. Among them: a bill honoring Super Bowl champs the Green Bay Packers, a declaration submitted by one of the absent Democrats.

“There’s a lot of pent-up energy here on the Republican side, and I don’t see them compromising on anything, but rather looking for ways to use rules to work around Democrats rather than bring them in,” says Barry Burden, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. “It’s hard to see where this is going.”

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While Walker made it clear during his campaign that he would take on union power in Madison, many Wisconsinites have been taken aback by the scope and speed of the Republicans’ proposal, says Burden. People “understand this is a major change, but to foist it on public employees so quickly seems not to respect the process,” he says.

Despite that concern, Republicans enjoy a distinct advantage, says Baker at Rutgers, though that could change if the budget impasse stretches out and union supporters win more backing from the public.

“Unions come into these battles with built-in disadvantages where Republican governors can invoke the job-creating power of business and all the unions can come back with is, ‘Well, we protect our members,’ ” he says. “It’s a much weaker argument.”

Compromise may be aided, however, by the fact that two deadlines are looming, perhaps enough to bring home the runaway Democrats: Friday is the deadline to restructure the state’s debt, and next Tuesday the state’s next biennial budget is rolled out. Staying away from that debate could cede too much power to Republicans and could become a major political liability for Democrats, analysts say.

What both sides may need to reach a resolution is to build trust by making their intentions more explicit, writes Chris Rickert, a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal, in Madison.

“Public workers should be able to bargain collectively, and Walker would be wise to drop his attack on the practice and compromise” after the union offered benefits concessions, writes Rickert. “Similarly, public sector unions would be wise to admit that the current dispute is mostly, if not entirely, about money.”