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Hey, whose caucus is this anyway?

After sitting in a Democratic caucus for about 20 minutes Tuesday, it was easy to see why Republicans didn’t want the press there.

The jabs at the Dems’ rivals across the aisle came fast and furious, many of them served up doubtlessly for our benefit.

But on what grounds could the Republicans demand that we be kept out? Surely it was out of line to tell a rival political party what it could and couldn’t do in caucus, a closed-door meeting usually held to let the members of one party discuss policy in private.

To really understand what was afoot, it’s important to recall the events of the day.

The Assembly was scheduled to take up the state budget Tuesday, but those plans came to a grinding halt when Republicans failed to put the finishing touches on a “technical” amendment they had planned to introduce. The Dems were hesitant to begin the debate without seeing that amendment, so, as a courtesy, the Republicans gave them a draft version to peruse Tuesday night.

It seems, though, that the offer didn’t extend to letting the press see the amendment, which was still in a draft form. They weren’t supposed to do anything but discuss it with members of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, which has produced various analyses on the many parts of the lengthy draft budget.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca speaks out against the Republican-backed state budget Wednesday in Madison. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer)

Still, the Democrats thought that, as long as they had the opportunity, they might as well let the public see the last-minute proposal to change the state budget. As soon as the Republicans learned of this intent, they demanded the caucus be closed to the press.

The Dems I talked to about this order were exasperated. Never before, they said, had they heard of the members of one political party having the audacity to tell those of another what they could or couldn’t do in caucus. But, as I said before, it was pretty easy to know after being in the meeting room for a few minutes why the Republicans didn’t want us there.

For one, the Dems were obviously happy to have a group of reporters all to themselves.

More than once it was noted that although the Republicans had said they were introducing a technical amendment, the language in the actual proposal went far beyond dotting the budget’s “I’s” and crossing its “T’s.” Several of the changes – such as a provision preventing local governments from setting fees or regulatory requirements on real estate brokers – had received little to no mention in the many, many debates that had occurred on the budget since Gov. Scott Walker introduced his initial draft spending plan in February.

And now, Democrats said, here were these proposals appearing only a day before the Assembly was to vote on the entire budget.

Surely this was a sign, they said, of the lengths to which Republicans were having to go at the last minute to save face and ensure the budget could pass with little or no dissent among their own ranks.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that a few of the proposals appearing in the draft amendment Tuesday didn’t actually make it into the final amendment introduced the following day. A provision that would have put another $5.3 million toward school vouchers, for instance, only made it into the draft as the result of a drafting error.

So, in all likelihood, the attempt to keep the press out of the room was, in part, meant to avoid a further muddying of the debate and, in part, to prevent Democrats from having a captive audience.

But, never fear, Republicans had their revenge.

They had promised to give the Democrats the final version of the technical amendment at the start of the day Wednesday. But — in what the Dems said they were certain was retaliation for opening the door to their caucus — the document didn’t actually make its way across the aisle until about 11 a.m. Wednesday, just before the debate on the budget began.

That’s also the time that it came to the press.

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