Wisconsin Republicans are poised to pass a set of sweeping measures that would narrow the state's window for early voting and curb the authorities of the incoming governor and attorney general in votes that could come late Tuesday night or in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
After hours of delays, the state Assembly and Senate both convened Tuesday afternoon as dozens of protesters lined the halls of the state Capitol urging Republican lawmakers not to move forward with the legislation, which was first introduced Friday afternoon. But by 5 p.m., both chambers were back on hold as Republican leaders met privately to discuss the bills.
Gov. Scott Walker ignored the shouts and boos that descended on him during a noon ceremony to light the Capitol's Christmas tree, but noted on Twitter that the objectors disrupted a school choir that sang holiday tunes after he flipped the switch to illuminate the tree, which stands about 35 feet tall and was donated by Don and Mary Miller of Plainfield.
Some carried signs with phrases like "GOP Grinch Stealing Democracy" and "Respect the Vote." Members of the daily Solidarity Sing-Along sang protest songs set to Christmas standards, the melody competing with the school choir below.
At one point during the ceremony, someone could be heard shouting "F--- you, Vos" toward Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, one floor above the tree. As Walker wrapped the ceremony, others shouted, "Hey, Walker, go home!" and "Peaceful transition of power."
The objections come as Republicans prepare to pass legislation that includes provisions that would narrow the state's window for early voting, give the Legislature more influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, prevent Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers from banning guns in the Capitol and make it difficult for Evers to implement rules that dictate how state laws are enforced.
Under the bills, lawmakers could opt to hire private attorneys at taxpayers' expense rather than be represented by the DOJ when state laws are challenged in court. By giving legislators oversight over litigation, Wisconsin could continue to participate in a multi-state lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act against the wishes of the governor and attorney general. Both Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul promised during their campaigns that they would pull Wisconsin out of the litigation.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rocheser, told reporters the bills are needed to ensure each branch of government has equal ability to negotiate with one another.
"Even though we positively have listened to the people of Wisconsin, we also know that these are the right things to do," he said.
Vos said legislative plans to shift the power balance in Wisconsin were longstanding and would have been discussed if Walker had won reelection. Vos said he respects the will of the voters, but said the Legislature has to act when it has the chance.
"We did have an election … I respect that fact," he said. "(Evers) is not the governor today and that’s why we’re going to make sure that the powers of each branch are as equal as they can be."
He said he has heard from his constituents, many of whom were supportive of he bills, and said he believes they are constitutional.
"Don’t give in … make sure that you keep what is in the law … voter ID, making sure people on welfare have to work," he said.
Republican lawmakers said the bills they would consider would remain largely unchanged from what cleared the Joint Finance Committee early Tuesday morning. Joint Finance co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said lawmakers had listened to the public on early voting hours. The bills would still reduce the window for early voting but not by as much as was previously proposed.
Nygren said the measure is "a fairness issue" because rural parts of the state don’t have the same resources to hold extended early voting hours as urban locations do.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, decried the legislation as "blatant overreach" from Republicans who are "defiant and desperate." Although Democrats were elected to the state's partisan constitutional offices, Republicans sill hold broad majorities in the Senate and Assembly.
"Republicans need to stop putting politics and power over people and accept the election and incoming administration, and work, and listen, and lead together with Democrats to solve the problems facing our state," Shilling said as she addressed her colleagues on the Senate floor.