For the third straight working day in a row, Gov. Scott Walker held a press conference in his state Capitol office, making the same points he's made at the other two, last Thursday and Friday, wearing what appeared to be the same clothes and allowing only a few questions, which he addressed with long-winded answers, providing an illusion of access more than access itself.
But some things were different. The entrance to the governor's office was packed with protesters, to the point where I had a hard time even getting in; a large contingent of law enforcement more than a dozen officers stood uneasily outside his door. The conference room itself was nearly packed, as national media outlets joined state reporters in greater numbers than before. There was almost a sense that the story is being taken out of our hands, to be served to a larger audience.
Walker, as before, framed each component of the issue in a divisive way. He said the divide in the state Senate was between "those who are ready to work and those who are not."
He suggested that the public employees who have flocked to the Capitol in huge numbers day after day were all somehow shirking their duties, comparing them to the 300,000 workers who actually went to work, ignoring that many employees came on their days off, which is why the largest crowds of all arrived Saturday. (Walker gave a nod to this event, at which anti-Walker protesters outnumbered supporters by more than ten to one, saying there was "a lot of passion, as we saw this weekend, on either side of this issue.")
Walker said the choice before him and the state was between the people whose chants could be heard louder than ever from outside his office and "the millions of hardworking taxpayers of Wisconsin," as though the two categories did not overlap.
And finally, as before, he expressed disdain for the unions who have responded to his refusal to negotiate with a promise to fully accept his terms with regard to pension and health care contributions, saying it showed that they were changing their position "day to day."
There was a new accusation, directed at the Legislature's Democratic leaders, in which Walker contested the notion that his push to strip public employee unions in the state of their ability to collectively bargain was some sort of a surprise. Why, he said, "I briefed Sen. [Mark] Miller and Rep. [Peter] Barca the morning of the announcement."
These people had literally minutes of advance notice. So there.
Walker, ripping the Senate Democrats for "hiding out in other states," noted that Wisconsin was facing some pretty serious deadlines regarding his budget repair bill. He said the state had only until "the end of this week" to approve the part of the bill that calls for refinancing state debt to save some $165 million, by far the largest share of savings. (A veteran Capitol reporter told me the do-or-die deadline is actually early next week.)
That raised an interesting prospect: Will Wisconsin lose an opportunity to painlessly save $165 million because Walker and the GOP want it all, and if so, who would get the blame?
The question on many reporters' minds was whether, as has been rumored all day, the state Senate might split off the part of the budget bill that Walker seems to care most about and his opponents find most onerous ending most collective bargaining and eroding the ability of unions to survive and introducing it as a non-fiscal bill, which can be passed in the Senate with a quorum of just 17. (The budget bill itself needs a quorum of 20, one more body than the GOP has senators.)
This question never got asked, because Walker allowed so few questions. But Walker did get quizzed about the belief, shared almost universally by those protesting him, that he is interested in busting unions. "Can you not see their point?" the reporter asked.
Walker, in response, said he "campaigned on this all throughout the election," meaning the changes he's seeking. He asserted that if he wanted to kill public employee unions, "we would have completely eliminated collective bargaining." As it is, the affected unions will still be able to collectively bargain over salary, to a limited extent.
Also, said Walker, if he wanted to bust unions, he would be going after unions in the private sector, as his powers are apparently that vast.
But, he hastened to assure, "I don't have any interest in doing anything to the private unions. I think the private unions are too important to getting the state's economy going. I welcome working with them."