This is quite a power play by the Wisconsin Republicans. Despite all the public opinion against them, despite weeks of protests, they have apparently decided to end the political careers of most of their colleagues. The Senate leader, Scott Fitzgerald, just called for a conference committee on the budget repair bill. The Senate, of course, hasn’t passed anything. But as I understand it, the plan is this: The Senate and Assembly will try to split the bill in half. The fiscal items will make up the budget repair bill. The non-fiscal items, like stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights and the like, will be made into a separate bill. Because it’s non-fiscal, the quorum requirements don’t apply. And they’re going to try and pass that part of the bill tonight.

The conference committee is scheduled for 6pm CT tonight, within the next hour.

More in a minute…

Incidentally, Gov. Walker has been saying for over three weeks that the stripping of collective bargaining rights was fiscal. Here’s one example. Here’s another. Here’s yet another. This would violate the spirit of the Constitution of the state of Wisconsin, and I’d gather it would be fought in court.

UPDATE: Mary Spicuzza writes: The Conference Committee on Budget Repair Bill will be live on Charter Channel 995 and WisEye is like CSPAN for Wisconsin.

UPDATE II: This is from the Wisconsin State Journal:

In a surprise move late Wednesday, Senate Republicans voted to move forward with the governor’s controversial budget repair bill, sending the measure into a conference committee scheduled for later in the day [...]

If the Republicans move forward with their plans, it would be a major reversal for Gov. Scott Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau. Both have contended that the bill is fiscal in nature and thus the collective bargaining could not be stripped from the measure.

Democratic Senators on Wednesday immediately criticized the move, saying it proves Republican attempts to end collective bargaining for public employees are not about balancing the budget.

“They have been saying all along that this is a fiscal item, we’ve been saying it is not,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, from Illinois. “They have been lying. Their goal is to bust up the unions.”

If I understand this correctly, this means they’ve already passed the non-fiscal portions of the budget repair bill in the Senate, perhaps by a voice vote. It’s very strange that nobody seems to know what was passed. This is real dead-of-night stuff.

UPDATE III: Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) is driving back to Wisconsin right now. Democrats are concerned that this power play is a trick to get Democrats back to the Capitol to get a quorum. But it sounds like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t proposition. Either the Republicans pass the union-busting bill separately or they get a quorum to pass the whole thing.

UPDATE IV: The deal appears to be to get the Senate part of this done tonight. The Assembly has a stronger majority. If the Senate moves this non-fiscal bill to the floor tonight and the Democrats stay out of town, the Senate would only need a simple majority of those in the chamber to pass. In other words, they would only need 10 out of 19 votes, rather than 17 in a full Senate. Which means that some of the GOP Senators could vote against it, with the bill still passing. Conceivably, all of the Republican 8 could vote no, and the wavering Dale Schultz, and they could still pass it.

…There’s also a concern that this violates Wisconsin open meeting laws. Public notice requires at least 24 hours notice for a public meeting, which the conference committee is. Here’s the statute.

The statute says clearly, “In no case may the notice be provided less than 2 hours in advance of the meeting.” Scott Fitzgerald announced the 6pm conference committee after 4pm.

UPDATE V: Here’s the notice of the conference committee executive session:

January 2011 Special Session Assembly Bill 11

Relating to: state finances, collective bargaining for public employees, compensation and fringe benefits of public employees, the state civil service system, the Medical Assistance program, sale of certain facilities, granting bonding authority, and making an appropriation.

It’s not certain, but what comes out of conference could include changes to the Medical Assistance program and the sale of heating/cooling/power plants. I’m not sure that’s what this means, however.

UPDATE VI: The conference committee lasted all of a couple minutes. On the roll call, the measure passed 4-2. Democratic Assembly Leader Peter Barca called the meeting illegal under open meeting laws and tried to amend the legislation, but the Republicans gaveled the meeting to a close.

…the Senate is going to the floor NOW.

…And that’s it. The vote in the Senate was 18-1. Only Dale Schultz, the moderate in the bunch, voted no. The non-fiscal bill to strip public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights has passed the Wisconsin State Senate. It moves on to the Assembly, but all expectations are it will pass there.

It was never about the budget. It was all about breaking the unions.

UPDATE VII: My thoughts on what comes next here.