TODAY   |  February 20, 2011

Wis. protests swell as budget standoff looms

For a sixth straight day, thousands of teachers and public workers converged on Madison amid a growing fight over budget cuts and union rights. NBC’s Scott Newell reports.

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LESTER HOLT, co-host: I want to begin with the showdown in Wisconsin . For a sixth straight day, thousands of teachers and public workers converged in the capital in Madison in a growing fight over budget cuts and union rights. NBC 's Scott Newell joins us live from Madison . Scott , good morning.

SCOTT NEWELL reporting: Good morning, Lester . For the first time , supporters of the governor's bill turned out in numbers. There was a heavy police presence as both sides shouted to make their voices heard. It was the sixth straight day of demonstrations. This crowd as many as 70,000, the largest yet. Many were protesting Governor Scott Walker 's plan to close the state's $6.3 billion budget deficit. The state's largest public employee unions now say they will pay more for their health and retirement benefits, but are refusing any limits to their collective bargaining rights.

Unidentified Woman: This is not about money, it's never been about money. It's about the Republican Party trying to squash the Democrats , trying to squash union rights.

NEWELL: For the first time , the governor's supporters joined the demonstrations in Madison .

Unidentified Man: I'm out here because, you know what, I work, just graduated this spring, and I try and save my money and act prudently, and I think it's about time the state does the same.

NEWELL: The Republican -backed bill is stalled because all 14 Democratic state senators left the state Thursday and are holed up in Illinois . Without a quorum, the Senate can't vote on the bill, and the fugitive senators say they are prepared to stay away for weeks if they have to.

State Senator KATHLEEN VINEHOUT (Democrat, Wisconsin): This is chipping away at our very middle class, at what -- at what our people have as a life in Wisconsin .

NEWELL: But Republicans aren't budging.

Senate Senator RANDY HOPPER (Republican, Wisconsin): There was a time for debate and the Democrats in the Senate decided they'd rather go to Illinois instead of be here debating this bill. So that time has come and gone.

NEWELL: Ohio and Indiana are considering bills similar to Wisconsin . Ohio 's legislature is considering a bill to limit collective bargaining for that state's 400,000 public employees. But what happens in Madison could set the tone for what happens around the country.

Mr. JEFF KEEFE (Rutgers University): Collective bargaining in the public sector began in Wisconsin . So if it happens there, it possibly could happen in many other states.

NEWELL: Yesterday's demonstrations were peaceful with no arrests reported. Now Monday is a holiday, so Tuesday is the first likely day anything will happen. I should also mention that there is a winter storm predicted to come in here today and that might affect the number of demonstrators who show up.

Lester: Scott Newell in Madison for us, thank you.