MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin Democrats who fled the state nearly three weeks ago asked Monday for a meeting with Gov. Scott Walker to talk about changes to his plan to eliminate most public workers' union rights, a request the governor dismissed as "ridiculous."
Walker said he and his administration have been in communication with at least a couple of the AWOL Senate Democrats about a deal that could bring them back, but the lawmaker who asked for the meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, "is firmly standing in the way."
That accusation led to a flurry of angry responses from Democrats who said Walker was misrepresenting the talks. The sometimes-angry exchange suggested that any resolution to the stalemate was farther away than ever.
"Trust is completely broken down now," said Sen. Bob Jauch, one of two Democrats who had talked last week with the Senate Republican leader about possible compromises. "I don't believe anything he says."
The standoff has drawn national attention and placed Wisconsin at the center a vigorous debate over the future of union rights. Walker's proposal to balance the state budget remains in limbo because, without the 14 Democrats, the state Senate does not have enough members present for a quorum.
The senators said pressure is mounting on Walker and the GOP to compromise after weeks of protests that have drawn tens of thousands of people to the Capitol.
In addition, polls show substantial opposition to the governor and his plan, and recall efforts have been launched against Republican senators. Recall efforts have also begun against the Democrats.
"The problem for the Democrats is to figure out how to come back and not be seen as conceding," said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor and founder of pollster.com.
"Both sides have been so strongly supported by their constituencies that it makes it awfully hard to compromise unless they can find a way to both claim victory," Franklin said.
"And that's certainly difficult."
Walker tried to place blame for the stalemate on Miller, the Democratic leader in the Senate, saying he blocked progress on talks with Jauch and Sen. Tim Cullen.
"It leads you to question who's in charge," Walker said at a news conference also attended by the Republican leaders of the Senate and Assembly.
Miller issued a statement saying if Walker didn't want to talk with him, the governor could meet with any of the 14 Senate Democrats. And Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said it was Walker who was standing in the way.
"We continually reach out with suggestions, ideas, offers," Erpenbach said. "We're not the ones getting in the way."
Before Walker refused the meeting request, Democrats were talking more openly about the need to return sooner rather than later. And even if they lose in a Senate vote, the lawmakers said, they had accomplished their broader goal of striking a nationwide political blow against the GOP's plans to cut back union rights.
"I don't think anyone expects us to stay here forever," Jauch said in a telephone interview from Illinois.
Walker's proposal would remove most collective bargaining rights for public employees, except over wage increases no greater than inflation. Police and fire departments would be the only exemptions. The legislation would also require state workers to start paying more for their pension and health care benefits starting in April, which amounts to an 8 percent pay cut on average.
The unions have agreed to the pay concessions as long as they can retain their bargaining rights. Over the past three weekends, rallies at the Capitol in opposition to the bill have grown as large as 80,000 people.
"We want to come back to the state of Wisconsin and stand with these hundreds of thousands of citizens who are now engaged," Jauch said. "Every day I feel like I'm closer to getting back because there has to be a transition from us to the rest of us. This isn't our fight. This is the citizens' fight."
Since last week, Miller has been talking about the importance of returning to oppose Walker's larger budget bill, which cuts about $1 billion from public schools and local governments to deal with a projected $3.6 billion shortfall.
"I don't think a lot of us have the stomach to stay away and watch our state plummet off a cliff," Democratic Sen. Chris Larson said.
Miller sent a letter Monday to Walker and the Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald asking for an in-person meeting "as soon as possible to resume negotiations" on how to resolve the impasse over the union bill.
Fitzgerald replied to Miller's request saying he forfeited his right to make changes to the bill when he skipped town rather than propose changes on the floor of the Senate.
"While we wait for you and your colleagues to finally show up, Senate Republicans continue to stand ready to do the job we were elected to do, here in Wisconsin," Fitzgerald said in the letter. "I hope you are enjoying your vacation, and your vacation from reality."
Both sides had been talking last week, but Democrats said negotiations broke down Thursday. Walker said his administration continued talks over the weekend, and he personally called a senator Monday morning.
Walker refused to describe what specifically was being negotiated, other than to say there were multiple ideas that get to the "mechanics of the process."
He reiterated that any part of the proposal dealing with collective bargaining rights could not be altered because doing so would make it more difficult for schools and local governments to deal with $1 billion in cuts he's proposing.
Senate Republicans have tried to increase pressure on Democrats to return with a variety of tactics, including holding their paychecks instead of allowing them to be deposited directly. The GOP also voted last week to allow police to essentially arrest the senators and force them to return if they are found in Wisconsin.
Erpenbach said that threat of arrest squelched progress last week on a possible return.
"What we have been doing from the beginning is trying to reach out and find some sort of compromise," Erpenbach said. "I think the pressure is really on them to find and forge some way to resolve this week."
Among the 14 who fled the state are Sen. Julie Lassa, who is pregnant, and Sen. Fred Risser, who at 83 has been in the Legislature since 1956. He is the longest serving lawmaker in the country.
"There are some realities that have to be faced," Jauch said, referring to the fact that Lassa is more than seven months' pregnant.
If Democrats return without meaningful concessions, the protests will only intensify, Jauch said.
"It's very difficult because I realize even though we didn't plan it this way, people are resting their hopes on our decisions," he said. "I know that at the point we return, some people are going to be terribly let down. We have to communicate with them that we stand together."