By Jeff Mayers
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate fled the Midwestern U.S. state on Thursday to boycott action on a Republican measure to curtail union rights for public employees as part of a deficit-cutting plan.
"We were left with no choice," Democratic Senator Jon Erpenbach told the online news service WisPolitics.
The proposal was to be debated and possibly come to a vote in the state Senate on Thursday. But a quorum of 20 is needed for the Senate, which has 19 Republicans.
Asked when the Democrats would return, Erpenbach said, "The question is when are the Republicans going to sit down seriously with the other side on this issue and try to work something out."
The proposal by Republican Governor Scott Walker to curb the bargaining rights of public unions in order to make immediate budget savings has sparked outrage among union workers in the state.
A crowd, estimated by police at 25,000 people, converged on the state Capitol building on Thursday, with 5,000 others packed inside.
Many schools throughout the state closed on Thursday after the state's largest teachers' union called for members to join the protests at the state Capitol.
Walker called Democratic lawmakers' actions "disrespectful."
"Out of respect for the institution of the Legislature and the democratic process, I am calling on Senate Democrats to show up to work today, debate legislation and cast their vote," Walker said.
STATE DEFICIT WOES
Democratic President Barack Obama weighed in during a television interview, saying while he understood that state governments needed to make cuts, the Wisconsin proposal "seems like more of an assault on unions."
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance their budgets this year, after the recession devastated their finances. Some states such as Wisconsin, Texas and Arizona are trying to make deep cuts in spending to balance the books. Others such as Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.
In Ohio, where the state Senate is considering a similar law that would eliminate collective bargaining for many state workers, thousands of protesters packed the lawn outside the state Capitol in Columbus.
Wisconsin Senate Joint Finance Committee co-chair Alberta Darling, said the choice facing Wisconsin was either to get the concessions from unions or lay off public employees.
"It's not like we're choosing to do this. We are broke," she said.
Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said Wisconsin pioneered collective bargaining for state workers in the 1960s.
"All this is taking place against a backdrop of mass protest in Cairo and elsewhere where people are trying to form unions," he said. "It's an unusual moment with high stakes -- and not just for Wisconsin. ... It has huge political implications."
The Wisconsin boycott is reminiscent of 2003, when Texas House Democrats fled to Oklahoma to avoid a vote on congressional redistricting.
The quorum-busting move blocked the Texas House from acting for four days. Senate Democrats later traveled to New Mexico to prevent a redistricting vote. Despite their efforts, redrawn maps that favored Republicans ultimately passed.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Reporting by Jeff Mayers, Andrew Stern, Corrie MacLaggen, James Kelleher and Karen Pierog; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney)