The 14 Democratic senators escaped to Illinois two weeks ago to avoid voting on Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to take away nearly all collective bargaining rights from most state workers. Their absence has blocked passage of the bill because at least one of them must be present to have a quorum.
The state constitution doesn't allow for senators to be arrested simply for not showing up. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said the resolution passed Thursday morning allows police to take the Democrats into custody under Senate rules, not criminal or civil law, and only if they are in Wisconsin.
"I do believe senators are in Wisconsin," he said. "I know they are driving back and forth to their homes."
Senate Democrats disagreed with Fitzgerald about what's allowed under the chamber's rules. Sen. Chris Larson said they hadn't done anything illegal and couldn't be arrested.
"All fourteen of us remain in Illinois, very strong in our convictions," Sen. Jon Erpenbach said in a statement. "Issuing arrest warrants at 4 p.m. isn't going to solve the problem."
The resolution says the Democrats would be found guilty of contempt and disorderly conduct if they don't return by 4 p.m., after which the Senate would issue an order similar to an arrest warrant. The order would give the chamber's sergeant at arms the power to take any necessary steps, including police assistance, to bring the senators back.
Fitzgerald called on any Wisconsin citizens who see the senators to contact police. He argued the resolution is about restoring order to the Senate and not the issues surrounding the union bill, which has led to three weeks of demonstrations by tens of thousands of protesters.
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association, a union representing 11,000 law enforcement officials from across the state, released a statement from its director Jim Palmer slamming the action.
"The thought of using law enforcement officers to exercise force in order to achieve a political objective is insanely wrong and Wisconsin sorely needs reasonable solutions and not potentially dangerous political theatrics," Palmer said.
Marquette University Law School professor Dan Blinka said no matter how it's described, the resolution calls for what amounts to an arrest that would have to be justified under the law. If it's found unconstitutional, any action taken by the senators after they were forced to return could be invalidated, Blinka said.
Howard Schweber, an associate political science and law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Senate Republicans can properly order police to enforce their rules, as long as they don't try to impose criminal sanctions on the Democrats.
"The resources of the executive branch can be called upon by the Legislature to enforce its rules," Schweber said. "I would suspect the Republicans have this one right. They probably are able to use police as a mechanism to enforce the rules of the Senate even though they would not be able to make failure to appear a crime."
A memo provided by private attorney Jim Troupis, who was hired by the Senate Republicans and often works with the GOP, said the state constitution gives them authority to act to compel attendance under its rules.
Fitzgerald also cited a Wednesday circuit court ruling in Oconto County that found Democratic Sen. Jim Holperin had violated his duty to attend Senate sessions, but that only the Senate had the right to enforce the rule that he be there. A citizen in Holperin's district, who was also represented by Troupis, brought the legal action.
The Senate has twice sent state patrol officers to look for some of the senators at their homes, but they left after not finding anyone there. Before the resolution passed, Fitzgerald said police could only try to persuade Democrats to return but not actually take them into custody.
Once the senators do return, Fitzgerald said they could face reprimand, censure or even expulsion.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this story.