Can lawmakers find common ground?
Walker reaches across aisle for jobs
By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The bitter battles and campaigning of Wisconsin’s historic state Senate recalls may be in the past, but if Wisconsinites are hoping for compromise and reconciliation between the Democrats and Republicans, they’re in the wrong state of mind.
Extending the olive branch
Both parties have shown signs of burying the hatchet, healing old wounds and getting down to the people’s business.
Gov. Scott Walker last week extended the olive branch, meeting with Democratic Party leaders, Sen. Mark Miller and Rep. Peter Barca.
The talk was about bipartisan cooperation, meeting in the middle on an issue the two sides can agree on: job creation.
While Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, urged lawmakers to tone down the rhetoric, the combatants have found it hard to walk away from the battlefield. This year’s political wounds have turned to scars.
“The governor is now talking about bipartisanship, which is difficult for many people to accept, because earlier this year, Gov. Scott Walker rammed through a law permanently stripping Wisconsin workers of their collective-bargaining rights,” Barca said in his weekly column.
He did not respond to calls from Wisconsin Reporter.
Barca extended his own olive branch.
“We are pleased that (Walker) now wants to switch his focus to job creation, which Democrats have been talking about since the first day of session, when we introduced a dozen job-creation bills,” Barca wrote. “I met with the governor this past week, talked cordially, and I sincerely welcome these changes.”
Bitter recalls leave bad taste
Many Republicans, Walker included, may have a difficult time buying any overtures of peace from Democrats, many of whom, in the days following the final recall elections, have stepped up the threats about going after Walker’s political head. The “Recall Walker” voices, in some circles, have grown louder than ever.
Several Democrats see the governor as their public enemy No. 1. The question is, with former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat, bowing out of a political run in 2012, could they field a candidate strong enough to take on a governor beloved by a lot of Republicans and plenty of independents?
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, survived one of the more bitter recall elections Aug. 9, a race that saw allegations of campaign fraud, bribery and deceit.
In her 21 years in office, Darling said she has never seen the kind of rancor, divisiveness and gridlock than in the political push and pull. She said she predicts a recall hangover in the session ahead and blames Democrats, particularly the 14 senators who fled the state in February and March to stall a vote on the controversial-budget reform bill.
“Having Democratic senators leave the state and close down government for three weeks is a tactic we’re still reeling over,” Darling said. “Are they going to do it again? The politics of personal destruction, class warfare and lies in my race does not create a good environment.”
Several Democratic senators, including Tim Carpenter, of Milwaukee, and Fred Risser, of Madison, did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment.
Democrats counter that Republican-sponsored legislation that would criminalize legislator absence without leave — a response to the 14 senators missing in action — presents some serious trust questions.
“What you’re doing here is playing politics with something I certainly don’t agree with, and the question really comes down to the penalties that you’ve imposed,” state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said in a legislative hearing last week
Lawmakers absent without leave for a period of three consecutive session days or more would be subject to a $500 fine per day after the first three days, according to the bill.
Republican supporters contend the bill holds all lawmakers accountable to their constituents, regardless of party.
Darling isn’t talking compromise, at least when it comes to her party’s principles. The GOP, she said, fought hard for tax and regulation reform, job creation incentives and budget cuts, and they’re not going to give those victories up.
“We’re not going to backpedal on our vision of where we need to go,” she said. “We need certainty that Wisconsin is a good state to do business in, and we’re not going to compromise on that vision.”
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said compromise would be fine, if Democrats could move toward the middle on important Republican legislation — like expanding mining and cutting government regulation.
“Unfortunately, Democrats are loathe to reduce spending anywhere,” Grothman said.
Too much ‘bad blood?’
Compromise more than likely won’t define this Legislature, said Barry Burden, a political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Hope for bipartisanship exists in the Senate, where Republicans now hold a slim 17-16 majority. Burden said moderate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle could dictate the flow and feel of legislation.
“It’s a smaller body and, like the U.S. Senate, there’s room for interesting bedfellows,” he said.
Lawmakers agree that intransigence and constant partisan wrangling are qualities wearing thin with voters. Too much bickering and gridlock could cost some legislators their jobs.
And that threat could prove as the ultimate incentive for finding common ground, polls and pundits say.