Indiana House Democrats who fled the state nearly six weeks ago to protest a Republican agenda they considered an assault on labor unions and public education returned to the Statehouse on Monday after nearly six weeks in Illinois.
Minority Leader Patrick Bauer said he and his fellow Democrats ended one of the longest legislative walkouts in recent U.S. history after winning concessions from Republicans over recent weeks on several issues.
"We're coming back after softening the radical agenda," said Bauer, D-South Bend, whose return was greeted by cheering union workers. "We won a battle, but we recognize the war goes on."
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma gaveled in the chamber shortly after 5 p.m., giving the House its first quorum since Democrats fled.
"It's refreshing and pleasant to see a full chamber," he said.
But what Democrats actually achieved with the walkout is a matter of debate.
Republicans vowed throughout the standoff that they wouldn't remove items from their agenda, and by and large they won't have to. The only bill actually killed by the boycott was a "right-to-work" proposal that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment.
Republicans agreed to changes on several other bills but are still pushing their agenda. For example, they agreed to cap for two years the number of students who could participate in a voucher program using taxpayer money to attend private schools, but it would still be among the nation's most expansive use of vouchers when the limits expire. Last week, Republicans agreed to reduce the number of government projects that would be exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law, but the amended bill is still expected to pass.
The concessions are likely more than Democrats would have gained had they not boycotted, but won't stop the GOP agenda.
The Democrats' most significant achievement may be the fact that people across the state are talking about these issues. Bauer said the public needed a "timeout" to learn about the agenda pushed by Republicans who took sweeping control of the House in 2010 elections.
Thousands of people attended Statehouse rallies during the walkout, and hundreds of people attended local town hall meetings. Many teachers said they didn't realize Republicans supported vouchers and other measures they think will erode public education, and some union members said they wished they had voted.
In that sense, Democrats "punched above their weight," said Robert Dion, who teaches politics at the University of Evansville.
"They got the attention of the state, and they were able to finagle some meaningful concessions that I don't think were necessarily offered all that willingly," Dion said.
On the other hand, Dion said, Democrats have a bit of a black eye because the walkout lasted so long.
Bauer and most House Democrats had fled on Feb. 22 to protest 11 pieces of legislation, denying the House the two-thirds of members present needed to do business. The state constitution requires a quorum to conduct any official business, and the impasse had the potential to force a special session or even a government shut down if a new budget wasn't adopted before July 1.
The Indiana boycott came a week after Wisconsin's Democratic senators left for Illinois in their three-week boycott against a law barring most public employees from collective bargaining. Wisconsin Republicans used a parliamentary maneuver to pass the law without them, and the matter now is headed to court.
Indiana's standoff got a bit nasty at times with name-calling, scathing political ads, rowdy rallies and fines totaling more than $3,000 for most absent Democrats but last week Republicans and Democrats seemed to tone down the rhetoric and were cautiously optimistic that the discussion between Bosma and Bauer could lead to a resolution.
Bosma predicted that lawmakers would have plenty of late nights as they work toward the scheduled end of the regular legislative session April 29.
"It's long past time to get to the people's business," Bosma said. "Hopefully we can make this work in five short weeks."
Bosma said he didn't consider the changes to that government projects bill substantive. That proposal would have originally increased from $150,000 to $1 million the point at which projects were exempt from the state's prevailing construction wage law and removed school districts and state universities from its requirements. Republicans since agreed to set the limit at $250,000 the first year and raise that to $350,000 the second year. They also agreed to delete the school and university exemptions.
On the private school voucher bill, Republicans agreed to cap the program at 7,500 students in the first year and 15,000 in the second year.
Bauer said the compromises aren't perfect.
"Democrats aren't bound to vote for them, and we will make an effort to continue to amend the proposals before us," Bauer said. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
Previous post in Around the Nation