Lawmakers in Wisconsin have moved closer to stripping state employees of union bargaining rights.
The Republican-dominated State Assembly abruptly ended an overnight debate on the measure, and held a 1:00 a.m. vote that caught many Democrats, who oppose the bill, off-guard.
Democrats shouted "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as their Republican colleagues silently filed out of the building after voting on the measure.
The bill must still clear the state Senate, but a vote there is uncertain because all 14 Democratic senators have left the state, denying the Republican majority the required number of lawmakers needed to hold a vote.
Republican Governor Scott Walker has argued that the measure is necessary to close a $137 million budget deficit this year, and $3.6 billion in the next two years.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators had gathered in the state capital of Madison to protest the bill, with many crowded into the Capitol building itself.
A political fight over union rights could spread to other parts of the country, as similar legislation is being considered in other states, including nearby Indiana and Ohio.
The legislation being debated would deny public employee unions the right to collectively bargain for pensions, benefits and other terms of their employment, while maintaining their right to negotiate wages. It would also require public employees to put aside more of their salaries toward their health care and pension benefits.
Critics accuse Republicans of using the legislation to weaken the unions. Some also say the move is politically motivated, as labor unions are major contributors to the Democratic Party.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.