I asked a veteran Capitol reporter last week how he thought the gridlock in the Senate would be resolved. He had no idea, he said, because as long as the Senate Republicans will not compromise, there is no way for the Democrats to come back to Wisconsin and still declare a partial victory.
An interesting idea that Sen. Glenn Grothman (check out the cover of Isthmus today!) mentioned the other day would be for the Senate GOP to begin introducing very conservative pieces of policy stuff that wouldn't even get unanimous support in the Republican caucus. Since the Senate has the quorum for nonbudgetary items, it could begin to approve bills that would otherwise not pass if the Democrats were in session. Perhaps a ban on embryonic stem cell research, for instance.
I don't see such a controversial and unpopular piece of legislation emerging anytime soon, but that, more than fines for absent senators, seems like a more likely way to pressure Democrats to return. (Although I have to ask, if Jon Erpenbach is looking to save money, why the hell is he lodging in the Windy City?)
The problem, of course, is that that tactic would probably anger some Republicans as well. Not all GOP senators have constituencies like Grothman's. The narrative of a Republican power grab has grown stronger every day, from the speed with which Walker expected the bill to be approved, to the closing of the Capitol to protesters in recent days.
When the Democrats do return, it will have to be a united decision. No one member is going to cross the picket line and expect to show his face in a Democratic caucus ever again.
The ball is still in the GOP's court. If they start to feel as if the public is siding with the departed Democrats, they can take collective bargaining off the table, which is what most of the public wants, and the Democrats will have to return. However, until then, the GOP can afford to wait, assuming that the public will not be sympathetic to senators who refuse to go back to work.
What I can't figure out is what the Dems will say if they finally decide to come home, after having won nothing.