MADISON, Wis. (Reuters) - Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whose bid to reduce public employee union bargaining power has triggered mass public protest, said Sunday he expects the Democrats who oppose his plan will concede to debate the issue early this week.
Fourteen state Democratic senators, who have left the state to deny the Wisconsin legislature a quorum needed to consider the controversial proposal, have "failed to do their jobs," the Republican governor said on Fox Network's "Fox News Sunday."
"If you want to participate in democracy, you've got to be in the arena, and the arena is right here in Madison, Wisconsin," he said.
Tens of thousands of people have demonstrated this week against Walker's proposed legislation, which supporters say is needed to control state debt and spending and opponents contend would break the back of state worker unions.
A rally by opponents of the proposal was set for midday in Madison, where temperatures were chilly and snow was falling.
Wisconsin is the flashpoint for a U.S. struggle over efforts to roll back pay, benefits and bargaining rights of government workers. If the majority Republicans prevail, other states could be emboldened to take on the powerful unions.
Walker said on Fox he expects the Democrats who left the state for Illinois to return in coming days, although one of them has said they are prepared to be away for weeks.
"My hope is that cooler minds will prevail and by some time earlier this coming week they'll show up for their job," Walker said. "Democracy is not about hiding out in another state. It's about showing up here in the capital and making the case there, and for us, we're willing to take this as long as it takes."
The Wisconsin State Assembly is due to take up the proposals on Tuesday. Republicans have a large enough majority to quorum in the Assembly without the Democrats.
"My hope is before Tuesday enough Republicans will recognize this proposal is over-reaching and the support for this proposal wanes. I've been told some Republicans will reconsider," State Assemblyman and Minority Leader Peter Barca said Saturday.
Officials estimated about 55,000 demonstrators in the state capital on Saturday, but no more than 5,000 appeared to be there for a rally backed by Tea Party groups, the first appearance by members of the limited-government movement.
The bill's opponents chanted "Kill the bill," while supporters countered with "Recall them all," referring to Democratic state senators who left the state.
U.S. state and local governments are struggling to balance budgets after the recession decimated their finances. In addition to Wisconsin, other states like Texas, Arizona and Ohio are relying mainly on cuts in spending to balance the books, while Minnesota and Illinois are raising taxes.
Walker said the proposal was necessary so that the state's municipalities can balance their budgets.
"I want to give those local governments the tools they need to balance the budgets now, and they can't do that with the current collective bargaining laws in this state," he said.
The Republican law would make state workers contribute more to health insurance and pensions. It also would end government collection of union dues, let workers opt out of unions and require unions to hold recertification votes every year.
Union and Democratic leaders say they are willing to compromise on benefits if Republicans back off on their bid to weaken collective bargaining, but so far Walker and his legislative allies have stood firm.
Walker estimates the state budget deficit for the rest of this fiscal year at $137 million and for the next two fiscal years under its biannual budget at $3.3 billion.
Walker said the alternative is to lay off more than 10,000 public employees.
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