MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A group of Democratic Wisconsin lawmakers blocked passage of a sweeping anti-union bill Thursday, refusing to show up for a vote and then abruptly leaving the state in an effort to force Republicans to the negotiating table.
As ever-growing throngs of protesters filled the Capitol for a third day, the 14 Democrats disappeared around noon, just as the Senate was about to begin debating the measure, which would end a half-century of collective bargaining rights for most public employees.
Hours later, one member of the group told The Associated Press that they had left Wisconsin.
"The plan is to try and slow this down because it's an extreme piece of legislation that's tearing this state apart," Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a telephone interview. He refused to say where he was.
Democrats hoped Republican Gov. Scott Walker and GOP lawmakers would consider revisions to the bill.
Walker, who took office just last month, urged the group to return and called the boycott a "stunt."
"It's more about theatrics than anything else," he said. The governor predicted the group would come back in a day or two, after realizing "they're elected to do a job."
Walker said Democrats could still offer amendments to change the bill, but he vowed not to concede on his plan to end most collective bargaining rights.
In addition to eliminating collective-bargaining rights, the legislation also would make public workers pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage - increases Walker calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector.
Republican leaders said they expected Wisconsin residents would be pleased with the savings the bill would achieve - $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
With 19 seats, Republicans hold a majority in the 33-member Senate, but they are one vote short of the number needed to conduct business. So the GOP needs at least one Democrat to be present before any voting can take place. Once the measure is brought to the floor, it needs 17 votes to pass.
The drama in Wisconsin unfolded in a jam-packed Capitol. Madison police and the State Department of Administration estimated the crowd at 25,000 protesters, the largest number yet.
Demonstrators stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the building's hallways, sat cross-legged across the floor and made it difficult to move from room to room.
Protesters clogged the hallway outside the Senate chamber, beating on drums, holding signs deriding Walker and pleading for lawmakers to kill the bill. Some others even demonstrated outside lawmakers' homes.
Hundreds of teachers joined the protest by calling in sick, forcing a number of school districts to cancel classes. Madison schools, the state's second-largest district, with 24,000 students, closed for a second day.