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Posted at 10:22 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

The political dangers of what happened in Wisconsin

By Chris Cillizza

After a lengthy political standoff, Wisconsin state Senate Republicans used a bit of legislative fancywork to pass a bill this evening that effectively strips public-sector unions of the right to collectively bargain.

In essence, the Senate Republicans pared down Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget bill to include only measures -- including the collective bargaining provision -- that spend no money. Those provisions are able to be passed without a quorum of legislators present. That's exactly what the Senate Republicans did.

While the next few days will be telling in terms of where the story goes, there is, traditionally, real political danger in using legislative maneuvering to pass controversial bills.

Think back to the aftermath of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown's special election victory in early 2010 when Democrats were scrambling to figure out how to pass President Obama's health care bill.

One option that was floated was something known as "deem and pass" in which the House would approve the bill without an actual floor vote. While the move was something that had been regularly used on past legislation, even some Democrats -- and Republicans almost unanimously -- protested that to use it on such a large and controversial bill would be unseemly. And, Democrats ultimately abandoned the effort.

Ditto the so-called "nuclear option" debate in 2005 when then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) threatened to change the Senate rules in order to break Democratic filibusters on a series of federal judge appointments put forward by President Bush.

That showdown was averted by the so-called "Gang of 14", a group of Republican and Democratic Senators who came together to craft a deal.

In the last six years then, politicians in both parties at the national level went right up to the edge of using parliamentary procedures to break a controversial impasse but backed down at the last moment.

The political lesson? While average voters don't follow the minutiae of legislative tactics and procedures they do tend to bristle at the idea of things going on behind closed doors; anything that feels like an end run around the "way things should be done" tends to be politically treacherous.

Democrats are doing everything they can to play into the idea that this bill was passed using below-board tactics.

Wisconsin state Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mark Miller said that "tonight 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people."

And, Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, added: "Senate Republicans have exercised the nuclear option to ram through their bill attacking Wisconsin's working families in the dark of night."

The next few days are critical for Republicans in the state. They must find a way to explain this move to voters in a way that makes it seem like democracy at work rather than democracy subverted.

To do that, expect Republicans to highlight the fact that they had to take action because Democrats had fled the state rather than stay and do their jobs.

Make no mistake, however. Republicans have rolled the dice. How will they land?

By Chris Cillizza  | March 9, 2011; 10:22 PM ET
Categories:  Republican Party  
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