updated 2/19/2011 7:27:16 PM ET 2011-02-20T00:27:16

An estimated 70,000 protesters converged on the Wisconsin Capitol on Saturday, with supporters of Republican efforts to scrap the union rights of state workers facing off against pro-union activists.

Supporters of Republican Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to ease Wisconsin's budget woes by reducing the power of public employee unions gathered on the east side of the Capitol, where they were surrounded by a much larger group of pro-labor demonstrators.

There were no clashes.

Pro-union activists and their supporters since Tuesday have filled the Capitol with chanting, drumbeats and anti-Walker slogans.

Walker has proposed legislation he says is needed to bring government spending under control. It does so, in part, by requiring government workers to contribute more to their health care and pension costs while largely eliminating their collective bargaining rights.

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The dispute is being watched carefully because if Walker prevails in Wisconsin, other conservative Republican governors may try to go after powerful public employee unions as part of their budget-cutting policies.

Saturday's protest was marked by opposing chants: "Pass the bill! Pass the bill!" and "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!"

"Go home!" union supporters yelled at Scott Lemke, a 46-year-old machine parts salesman from Cedarburg who wore a hard hat and carried a sign that read "If you don't like it, quit" on one side, and "If you don't like that, try you're fired" on the other.

Video: ‘It comes down to collective bargaining’

The Wisconsin governor — elected in November's Republican wave that also gave control of the state Assembly and Senate to Republicans — says that concessions from public employee unions are needed to deal with the state's projected $3.6 billion budget shortfall and to avoid layoffs of government workers.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald reaffirmed that Republicans have not been swayed by the pro-labor protesters.

"The bill is not negotiable," Fitzgerald said inside a heavily guarded Senate parlor at the Capitol. "The bill will pass as is."

Fitzgerald said Republicans have the votes needed to pass the so-called "budget repair" bill just as soon as 14 Senate Democrats who fled the state on Thursday and remain in hiding return to the Statehouse. Without them, there isn't the required quorum to vote on legislation.

Wisconsin: How we got here

The missing Democrats have threatened to stay away for weeks and remain more resolved than ever to stay away "as long as it takes" until Walker agrees to negotiate, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach said Saturday.

"I don't think he's really thought it through, to be honest," Erpenbach said.

Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker's proposal that would double workers' health insurance contributions and require them to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pensions, so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state as a union.

Madison police estimated 60,000 or more people were outside the Capitol with up to 8,000 more inside.

Doctors from numerous hospitals set up a station near the Capitol to provide notes covering public employees' absences. Family physician Lou Sanner, 59, of Madison, said he had given out hundreds of notes. Many of the people he spoke with seemed to be suffering from stress, he said.

"What employers have a right to know is if the patient was assessed by a duly licensed physician about time off of work," Sanner said. "Employers don't have a right to know the nature of that conversation or the nature of that illness. So it's as valid as every other work note that I've written for the last 30 years."

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Video: Dueling protests as Wis. budget battle rolls on

  1. Closed captioning of: Dueling protests as Wis. budget battle rolls on

    >> of people power being demonstrated around the world. that political revolt close to home at the wisconsin state house reached a new level today. in the largest turnout, estimated 70,000 people marched to override the bill that would limit rights of public employees. the battle has sent lawmakers into hiding and is being closely watched in plenty of other cash-strapped capitols. today it forced a huge face off. nbc's scott newel joins us with the latest. scott?

    >> reporter: for the first time, supporters of the bill turned out today. security was heavy as both sides shouted to make their voices heard. it was the 6th day of demonstrations. many were protesting the governor's plan to close the $6.3 billion budget deficit . the state's largest public employee unions now say they will pay more for benefits and are refusing limits to bar gaining right.

    >> this is about the republican party trying to squash the democrats and human rights .

    >> for the first time today, the govern governor's supporters joined the demonstration.

    >> i worked and graduated and save my money. and i think it is time the state does the same.

    >> reporter: all 14 democratic state senators left the state thursday and are in illinois. without a quorum, the senate can't vote on the bill. senators say they are prepared to stay away for weeks if they have to.

    >> this is chipping away at our middle class at what our people have as a light in wisconsin.

    >> reporter: republicans aren't budging.

    >> there was a time for debate. they would rather go to illinois instead of being here. that time has come and gone. ohio and indiana are considering bills similar. but what happens in madison could set the tone for what happens around the country.

    >> collective bargaining in the public sector , if it happens there, it could happen in other states.

    >> reporter: today's demonstrations were peaceful. there

Interactive: Wisconsin protests


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