With Republican-controlled Indiana on the verge of becoming a "right to work" state, Democrats in the state House on Tuesday took the only step they have left to prevent it, if only for a bit longer. They disappeared. Again.
A final vote on the measure, which would bar union contracts from requiring nonunion members to pay fees for representation, had been expected Tuesday in the House, which Republicans dominate, 60-40.
But with scores of union members and supporters filling the Statehouse halls in Indianapolis in protest, most Democrats refused to turn up for floor sessions -- not once, but twice on Tuesday afternoon.
The absences, only the latest in a series of absences and fierce partisan debate over the issue during the state's legislative session, meant that Republicans did not have enough members on the floor to do business; 67 representatives are required.
And so -- with the national spotlight soon to descend on Indianapolis for the Super Bowl, and with the tense standoff only rising among lawmakers and protesters -- Indiana finds itself at the center of a fight over the role of unions and their power, not unlike the issues that boiled over last year in Ohio and Wisconsin.
Republicans say the "right to work" legislation would allow workers who do not wish to support unions not to be forced to do so, and would entice new businesses to move to Indiana, which would be the first state in more than a decade to approve such a provision.
Democrats say the measure, more common in states outside the traditional Midwestern manufacturing belt, would weaken unions and lead to lower pay and benefits for workers.
Union organizers hoped to underscore the conflict Tuesday evening, when Gov. Mitch Daniels, who has said he favors the "right to work" bill, was to give the Republicans' response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Union leaders said they planned to run on some cable news networks an advertisement intended to point up Mr. Daniels' shifting position on the issue.
"We don't have enough votes to govern the chamber, but we have enough votes to govern the timetable of what work is done," said Rep. Scott Pelath, who, like each of the other absent Democrats, is facing $4,000 in fines -- and the threat of more fines for each day of absence. Whether the Democrats will come to the House floor on Wednesday, Mr. Pelath said, remained to be determined.
If the House passes the bill, Senate approval will still be needed for the measure to become law. But that is widely expected, particularly because the Senate already has passed its own version of the bill and because Democrats hold too few seats there to prevent a quorum.
For now, House Speaker Brian C. Bosma, a Republican whose home was the site of union protests this week, said he was prepared to continue fining Democrats until they appear, but he sounded increasingly frustrated.
"We shouldn't have to strong-arm people or say pretty please for them to do the job they were hired to do," he said in an interview. "We're going to do what's right for Hoosiers, regardless of how loudly someone yells."