During his bid for the presidency in 2008, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama was attacked by both Democrats and Republicans for voting "present" on nearly 130 bills during his tenure as an Illinois lawmaker.

During a January primary debate back then, Hillary Clinton explained how she viewed the practice of voting "present."

"That's not ‘yes.' That's not ‘no.' That's ‘maybe,'" Clinton said.

Republicans loved it. It made for great fodder about Obama being wishy-washy or overly sensitive about taking positions on tough issues.

Flash forward to 2015. Republicans in the Illinois House and Senate have nearly worn out their "present" buttons this year.

Rather than take positions on politically motivated legislation being floated by the Democrat majority, the GOP minority has made a habit of staying off those bills in hopes it dulls the ability of their opponents to use those votes against them in the 2016 election.

As the old saying goes, there's a reason the "present" button is yellow.

Last week's showdown vote over a no-strike bill being pushed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union was no different. Eight Republicans who represent districts with high concentrations of unionized state workers hit their "present" buttons.

They include state Reps. Tim Butler and Raymond Poe of Springfield, Don Moffitt of Gilson, Avery Bourne of Pawnee and Norene Hammond of Macomb.

Given that Republican leadership had ordered all of the lawmakers to not vote their green "yes" buttons under the threat of being kicked out of future caucus meetings, it was one of their only options if they wanted to keep some level of credibility with their constituents in future elections.

Then again, at least they pushed a button. State Rep. Terri Bryant, a Murphysboro Republican who is a former AFSCME member, sat and listened to the lengthy debate.

But, when it came time to weigh in on the bill, Bryant didn't even cast a vote.

The measure, seen as a test of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's strength against House Speaker Michael Madigan's muscle, went Rauner's way, falling short of passage by three votes after one Democrat, Kenneth Dunkin of Chicago, failed to show up for work.

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Dunkin, who would have provided the final vote needed to override Rauner's veto of the proposal, instead was in New York on vacation.

Although House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said the measure would have passed if Dunkin had been in town, Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury of Highwood, voted "no" and made comments afterward that made it pretty clear he was never going to back the legislation.

Rauner complained that the measure would take power out of his hands to negotiate a contract on behalf of taxpayers by putting a decision on a labor agreement in the hands of an unelected arbitrator.

That arbitrator, he said, could side with the union and approve a contract giving state workers big raises, costing taxpayers billion of dollars that the state doesn't have.

Business reaction

Business groups have been strongly in Rauner's camp all along and, after the no-strike legislation went down in flames, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce had this to say:

“The Illinois Chamber of Commerce commends the legislature for standing up to its responsibility to hold the line on spending. Because of this vote, state government will not require binding arbitration for impasses in state employee union negotiations. If it had passed, state employee pay raises would have been on cruise control, careening the state further into the red when the state needs to cut costs to meet revenue. At a time when private sector employees are lucky to see small raises if any, state government union contracts can demand double-digit raises during the life of a contract. We can’t have that anymore."

Labor reaction

It was a stinging defeat for Big Labor. Here's what top union brass were saying:

“We are disappointed that more members of the House did not cast their votes for the good of the people of Illinois today,” said Illinois Fraternal Order of Police President Chris Southwood.

“Day in and day out, public service workers in state government keep us safe, care for veterans, protect kids and much more,” said AFSCME chief Roberta Lynch. “State employees don’t want to be forced out on strike, but we’re determined not to let Gov. Rauner undercut workers’ rights, jeopardize workplace safety or threaten the economic security of working families.”

"The Illinois labor movement will remain united," AFL-CIO President Mike Carrigan said.

Follow Kurt Erickson on Twitter @Illinois_Stage


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