Demonstrators booed outgoing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday during a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, at times drowning out a high school choir with their own songs in protest of a Republican effort to gut the powers of his Democratic successor.
The governor, wearing a Santa tie, appeared unfazed as he flipped the switch while one protester shouted "Hey Walker! Go home!" He left without taking questions from reporters about the bills being considered in the rare lame-duck legislative session. Walker, who has signaled support for the measures, later tweeted that he "can handle the shouts," but he urged protesters to "leave the kids alone."
Stung by their election loss last month, Republicans treated the lame-duck session as a final opportunity to use their political clout to weaken the next governor before time runs out. Democrats, who won every statewide constitutional office after nearly a decade-long GOP hold on power, derided the session as a cynical attempt to preserve the party's waning strength.
"If he wanted to put a stop to this, he could," Russ Hahn, a 53-year-old attorney, said of Walker. He was holding a sign that said "GOP Grinch Steals Democracy."
The fact that Walker was making no attempt to halt the effort "clearly indicates he wants to be able to control things outside the governor's office for the next four or eight years," Hahn said.
Republicans were still working to reach final agreement on what exactly they would pass. Leaders from both the Senate and Assembly negotiated into the night, giving opponents hope that the bills may be scaled back. Debate in the Assembly finally began around 10:30 p.m., more than nine hours after it was scheduled to start.
"Even you have questions," Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said as debate began. "The Senate has questions. Why are we here today? What are we doing? Nothing we're doing here is about helping the people of Wisconsin. It's about helping politicians. It's about power and self-interest."
At one point Tuesday, the public was ordered removed from Senate galleries after repeated warnings to be quiet. Spectators shouted "Shame!" and hurled complaints at senators, temporarily halting debate. Less than an hour later, Republicans said they would let people back in.
The GOP proposals would weaken the governor's ability to put in place rules that enact laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control. Republicans also want to limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election.
Walker burst onto the national political scene in 2011 with an aggressive anti-union agenda. Many of the same protesters who confronted him then returned to the Capitol on Tuesday — albeit in far fewer numbers. Protests in 2011 reached 100,000, but only a few dozen were on hand this time.
"The first thing Scott Walker did when he walked through the door of the Capitol was to create chaos," Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said during Senate debate. "The last thing he is doing is creating chaos."
Democrats vowed to do all they could to stop the proposals, which would weaken both Democratic Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul.
Some hinted at filibusters or legal challenges and called the lame-duck session "illegitimate." Former Democratic attorney general and Gov. Jim Doyle said the moves were unconstitutional.
Never in Wisconsin history "has an extraordinary session been used to deny the will of the people and take away powers from the newly elected governor and newly elected attorney general," Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor said.
Despite the victories by Evers, Kaul and other Democrats, the party gained no ground in the Legislature and blamed partisan gerrymandering by Republicans for stacking the electoral map against them.
A GOP-controlled committee approved the measures late Monday after a nine-hour public hearing where only one person testified in support of one provision. The panel rejected a proposal to move the 2020 presidential primary date from April to March amid nearly unanimous opposition from the state's local election clerks.
"The people aren't asking for this," Taylor said during the hearing. "You did not run on this. You didn't tell people you would do everything in your power to take away the power of a newly elected governor and attorney general. You rig the system when you win, and you rig the system when you lose."
Republican Rep. John Nygren, co-chairman of the committee, downplayed the proposals and said the goal was to establish balance in power between the Legislature and governor. Nygren said it was a positive step that would "bring us together to solve the problems of the state."
Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters that his constituents want him to protect everything the GOP has accomplished over the last eight years under Walker. The legislation, he said, ensures that Evers will have to negotiate with lawmakers and cannot unilaterally erase Republican ideas.
"We do not believe any one individual should have the opportunity to come in and with a stroke of the pen ... eliminate laws passed by our Legislature," Vos said, citing rules enacting voter photo ID, a key GOP initiative during Walker's two terms.
The last lame-duck session in Wisconsin was in 2010, when Democrats tried unsuccessfully to enact labor agreements.
The proposals to bolster Republican legislative power come after North Carolina lawmakers took similar steps two years ago. Michigan Republicans are also discussing taking action before a Democratic governor takes over there.
The Wisconsin GOP package would also weaken the attorney general's office by allowing Republican legislative leaders to intervene in cases and hire their own attorneys. A legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, would have to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits.
That would stop Evers and Kaul from fulfilling their campaign promises to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They made opposition to that lawsuit a central part of both of their campaigns.