What I just witnessed at the Wisconsin State Capitol was either the end of democracy as we know it, or the beginning.
As tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded the building, a small orange card handed to me by Steve Walters, dean of the Capitol press corps, allowed me access to the extraordinary events taking place behind the scenes.
I was there among the protesters, packed so thickly into the building's corridors that it took me more than a half hour to get my press pass and make it back to the Senate, which was set to vote on Gov. Scott Walker's "budget repair bill," which would impose unilateral changes on state workers, strip most state and local public employees of their collective bargaining rights, and impose rules changes that could likely spell the demise of the unions altogether.
The meeting was supposed to have begun at 11 a.m. but the Senate's 14 Democratic members were nowhere to be found, and indeed, were rumored to have fled the city.
The stratagem denied the Senate the 20-member quorum it needed to proceed. The buzz among the press corps was that state troopers might be sent in pursuit, to round them up and bring them back, in handcuffs if necessary.
At about 11:20, Senate President Mike Ellis announced that the meeting was about to begin, and his Republican colleagues filed into the room. The meeting was called to order, if that's the right word for it.
A roll call was taken. "There are 17 members present," Ellis announced. "A quorum is present." (Seventeen is enough for a regular meeting, but not a budget vote.) Ellis said he would hold the roll open for the missing senators: "We will show them that courtesy."
Business began, as usual, with a prayer, delivered by a black minister. He actually concluded by saying, "We thank you for this time together, in Jesus' name."
Then the GOP senators in the room recited the Pledge of Allegiance, putting conspicuous emphasis on the words "with liberty and justice for all!"
Just as the Senate began its consideration of the budget repair bill, several of the citizens in the upper gallery began shouting, "Freedom! Democracy! Union!" again and again. It was loud and insistent enough that the meeting could not proceed, and the senators left the chamber at 11:36.
While they were out of the room, the people shouting were removed.
The throng of reporters present about two dozen in all filed into a conference room, where Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald spun the absence of his Democratic colleagues as a profound affront to the spirit of democracy embraced by his party.
"I'm not sure why they didn't show up," he stated, as though it were just the latest in a series of Democratic affronts. "The rest of the process, the Democrats didn't participate. And today they just checked out.
"That's not democracy," Fitzgerald clucked. "This is the ultimate shutdown not showing up for work."
Apparently, by this time, the Republicans had cottoned to the realization that 17 members were not enough to proceed. Said Fitzgerald to reporters, "We need one Democrat to show up." (Where's Russ Decker when you really need him?")
In the conference room at the time was Sen. Glenn Grothman, in a genial mood. I asked him, as chants of "Kill the bill!" resonated from the packed Rotunda, if he still thought Gov. Walker's budget repair bill "didn't go far enough," as he's said.
Absolutely, Grothman replied. "It's a compromise," he said of Walker's proposal. "What are you going to do? If it were up to me, it would have included police and firefighters. In fact, I don't know why we need collective bargaining [for public employees] at all."
I mentioned to Grothman that I had interviewed some prison guards for Oshkosh Correctional at one of the protests this week. They told me they were worried about losing the ability to collectively bargain for workplace rules, in an environment where any inmate can make accusations.
Grothman pooh-poohed this, saying his party stood foursquare with prison guards against inmates: "I'm sure the Republican majority will do whatever they can do to protect the guards."
Everything, that is, except allow them to collectively bargain for anything other than salaries, with even that being a "compromise" he profoundly disagrees with.
I asked if Grothman supported the use of state troopers to seek out and forcibly retrieve the missing senators. Absolutely: "If we can find any Democrats, we will bring them in. [That's] up to law enforcement."
It was announced that the Senate Sergeant At Arms, Ted Blazel, was going to make the rounds to the offices of the missing Democratic senators. This he did, with about a dozen reporters in tow.
We wound our way through the packed hallways and up and down multiple stairways to the offices of all 14 Democratic senators, from Mark Miller to Bob Jauch. Blazel entered each and looked around to see if anyone could be found. Then he would exit and shake his head.
Blazel would in each case ask whatever staff were present if they knew where their senators were. I wasn't able to hear any of these exchanges, but Blazel told reporters, "Mostly the answer is they're not sure." The last office was visited at 12:15 p.m., and Blazel headed back to tell the Senate's leaders that the missing Democrats could not be found.
From the perspective of the tens of thousands of people who are still at the Capitol, their shouts resounding in my office across the street, the Democrats may be missing, but the democracy isn't.