More than two weeks after Democratic lawmakers fled Indiana to block GOP-backed legislation, both sides gave optimistic signals Wednesday about resolving the stalemate — though Democratic leaders were approaching with "cautious optimism."
Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said Rep. Patrick Bauer, the Democratic Minority Leader, called him earlier in the day to discuss how to handle several education and labor bills that passed committees but are now stalled by the boycott.
"I consider that to be a dramatic step forward, both the first phone call I've received in three weeks from him and the fact that they are trying to get some clarity on how we will handle business if and when they return," Bosma said. "It's my hope that's a prelude to us getting back to business."
Bauer said his conversation with Bosma, along with talks that some Republican bill sponsors about possible changes to legislation, gave him "cautious optimism."
However, the AWOL Democrats gave no indication that they would return to Indianapolis when Republicans try to resume legislative business Monday or even in time for pro-union rally Thursday at the Statehouse.
Wednesday marked the 16th day that most House Democrats have spent in Urbana, Ill., preventing any legislative action because too few members were present.
The boycotting Democrats have narrowed their list of objections to bills dealing with private school vouchers, limits on collective bargaining for teachers and exempting many government construction projects from the state's prevailing wage law.
They appear to be framing their arguments as part of a larger fight against Republican-led efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states to limit collective bargaining rights for state employees and teachers. Bauer and other Democratic legislators appeared on CNN and MSNBC this week to talk about their walkout.
Union organizers plan what could be the largest protest in several years at the Statehouse on Thursday to support the Democrats' stance.
Bauer wouldn't say whether any of the boycotters would travel from Illinois to Indianapolis for the rally.
"It is really focused on the workers who are losing their jobs or being marched towards minimum wage, and the teachers who won't have jobs, and the cuts in education," he said. "I think it will show the tremendous support that we have for the actions we've taken and how many people are concerned about their job diminution or elimination."
Bauer left open the door for Democrats to return next week. When asked whether they could return on Monday, he replied, "Well, I think that might be a stretch, but I say again, 'day by day."
Some Democratic lawmakers fielded questions about wages and education from supporters during a telephone town hall session Wednesday night and reiterated that they were standing up for Indiana's working class.
"It's been a great moment of Indiana history that 39 people have stood up," said Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.