MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans passed sweeping legislation Wednesday that shifts power to the Republican-controlled Legislature and weakens the Democrat replacing Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Republicans pushed on through protests, internal disagreement and Democratic opposition in a lame-duck legislative session to reduce the powers of Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Democratic Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul. Both Evers and Kaul warned that resulting lawsuits would bring more gridlock to Wisconsin when the new administration — and the first divided government in 10 years — takes over in January.
Republicans were battered in the midterm election — losing all statewide races amid strong Democratic turnout — but they retained legislative majorities thanks to what Democrats say are gerrymandered districts that tilt the map against them.
“Wisconsin has never seen anything like this,” Evers said in a statement Wednesday. “Power-hungry politicians rushed through sweeping changes to our laws to expand their own power and override the will of the people of Wisconsin who asked for change on November 6th.”
The GOP power grab comes after North Carolina lawmakers took similar steps two years ago, and as Michigan Republicans are discussing taking action before a Democratic governor takes over there.
Wisconsin Republicans passed the legislation in an all-night session marked by stops and starts as GOP leaders tried to muster enough votes in the Senate. That chamber ultimately approved the package 17-16, with just one Republican voting against it, around sunrise. The Assembly approved it on a 56-27 vote about two hours later, sending it on to Walker, with just one Republican defecting.
“This is a heck of a way to run a railroad,” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling said as Senate debate resumed at 5 a.m. after a seven-hour impasse. “This is embarrassing we’re even here.”
Walker has signaled his support for the proposal. He has 10 days to sign it from the time it’s delivered to his office. A spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a question about how quickly Walker would act; he was in Washington on Wednesday for former President George H.W. Bush’s funeral .
In one concession, Wisconsin Republicans backed away from giving the Legislature the power to sidestep the attorney general and appoint their own attorney when state laws are challenged in court.
Walker was booed and heckled by protesters Tuesday during an afternoon Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the Capitol rotunda. He’s in his final five weeks as governor after losing a bid for a third term to Evers, the state schools superintendent.
Faced with a Democratic governor for the first time in eight years, legislative Republicans came up with a package of lame-duck bills to protect their priorities and make it harder for Evers to enact his.
“You’re here because you don’t want to give up power,” Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said as debate concluded in that chamber. “You’re sore losers. Does anybody think this is the right way to do business? If you vote for this, shame on you. You will go down in history as a disgrace.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos countered that the bills would ensure a balance of power between the Legislature and the executive branch.
“We have allowed far too much authority to flow to the executive,” Vos said. “To you this is all about politics. To me, it’s about the institution.”
The legislation would weaken the governor’s ability to put in place rules that enact laws and shield the state jobs agency from his control until September. It also would limit early voting to no more than two weeks before an election, a restriction similar to what a federal judge ruled was unconstitutional .
The proposal would also weaken the attorney general’s office by requiring a legislative committee, rather than the attorney general, to sign off on withdrawing from federal lawsuits. That would stop Evers and Kaul from fulfilling 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.
Democrats say the legislation will spark lawsuits across multiple courts. Judges could block the proposals if they become law by issuing temporary injunctions, which could last the duration of the cases. Democrats would likely need a permanent injunction to stop the changes for good, but Republicans would almost certainly pursue appeals all the way to the state Supreme Court, which is controlled by conservative justices.
The Legislature passed another measure to enact Medicaid work requirement rules that Walker recently won a federal waiver to establish. That bill would also give the Legislature oversight over the governor seeking future waivers for health care, a change Democrats said would handcuff the new administration.
Protesters have come and gone in the Capitol the past two days as lawmakers rushed to pass the bills. The tumult was reminiscent of much larger demonstrations in the opening weeks of Walker’s time as governor in 2011, when he effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers.
“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.”
Also early Wednesday, the Senate rejected a bill that would have created a state guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can have access to health insurance. Walker had made it a priority during the campaign, but it failed 16-17 after two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it. Democrats and other opponents argue the measure provided inadequate coverage and would cause premiums to skyrocket, making coverage unaffordable for people. Instead, Democrats support bolstering coverage guarantees in the federal health care law.
Vos, the Assembly speaker, said Wednesday morning that he expects Assembly Republicans will bring the bill back early next year.