A Capitol all-nighter over the right of 21,000 child-care providers and personal care attendants to unionize has emboldened the Legislature's GOP minority and thrown a "firecracker" into the frenzied last days of the session.

The divisive fight over union rights, which produced nearly 29 floor amendments and a record 17 straight hours of debate from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning, was won by the DFL majority. But the issue, though lacking the high profile of gay marriage and guns, could complicate both the session windup and the political campaigns ahead.

"If you wanted to light a firecracker, you did," said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, addressing his DFL colleagues shortly after dawn Wednesday. "You've put some energy into this caucus — you've put some energy into the Republican Party."

On the day that Gov. Mark Dayton was signing the gay marriage bill in front of 7,000 delirious supporters on the Capitol mall, the Senate was tied in knots by a determined GOP minority that went to the wall, and then some, to stop a potential expansion of unionization.

The measure would allow certain home-based family child-care providers and personal care attendants to vote on whether to join a union and negotiate with the state. It is the top priority of two union giants — AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and SEIU, the Service Employees International Union.

The unions are powerful parts of the DFL base, providing foot soldiers for campaigns, and in 2012, a combined $2 million to candidates, caucuses and causes.

Marathon starts

Beginning at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Republicans in the Senate tried their best to defeat, amend and reshape. The doors were briefly closed and bathroom breaks were debated. Legislators showed their commitment by stoic endurance. The debate crept on past midnight and senators sat at their desks or wandered, returning to cast votes on a seemingly endless stream of GOP amendments.

After 7 a.m. on Wednesday, setting a Senate record for debate, the bill passed by three votes.

One DFLer who was going to vote with the GOP, Sen. Barb Goodwin of Columbia Heights, switched following the debate. But by pushing the vote into another "legislative day," Republicans succeeded in slowing the bill down, delaying its transfer to the House and creating less time for the raft of huge budget bills that must still be debated and voted on before Monday's midnight adjournment deadline.

The DFL majority accused Republicans of trying to run out the clock and force a special session that would embarrass the DFL.

With huge blocks of time needed for multi-billion-dollar budget bills, the loss of a day is no small thing.

But to Republicans, the unionizing of in-home providers — particularly child-care operators who run their own businesses and who have a well-organized opposition network — indeed is a firecracker of an issue. And one whose blast, they feel, will hit the DFL Party hard.

"This is an issue of individual liberty and freedom," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "Any time government wants to force some intention on freethinking people, if it's being led by the DFL, yah, that is a definite advantage to us politically."

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, referred to "confiscation, nationalization of private property," and called the bill "an absolute affront" to the ideals of the U.S. Constitution. Senjem called it "the worst bill in my 11 years."

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, awarded the bill the "dirty diaper award," for giving off an offending odor.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, argued that this was the right political battle to take on and possibly a road back to power. "I think if they do it, it's going to get a lot of pushback, and I think it's going to be a minority-maker," Hann said of the DFL.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said of the GOP effort: "This is their Waterloo."

Amendments defeated

The bill sponsor, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, argued tirelessly that the bill would give providers and assistants the right to call a union vote, to see whether they wanted to be represented. "It's all about their choice," she said.

Toward the end, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, held up his electricians' union card and gave a history lesson on the rise of the union movement and development of the middle class. "I understand why this majority caucus has got the majority," he said to the Republicans. "Because you cannot stand only for the wealthy."

Pappas was able to defeat every amendment she opposed and was cheered by a band of union supporters who stayed through the night.

"The hostility toward labor is just unbelievable," said Pappas, whose demeanor during the ordeal drew praise from her opponents. She compared the marathon session to "Washington, D.C., gridlock."

The House sponsor, Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said he expects to take the bill up Saturday.

"I expect a long battle," he said.

Bakk said he believes the Legislature can get its work done despite the all-nighter, and the possibility of the House's deciding to "call the question" and cut off debate at some point could prevent another day-night-day marathon.

But the age-old divide between the DFL and Republican parties on labor rights will not go away and may figure in House elections next year. For now, Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said she believes her side did its job by pulling the all-nighter.

"We have proven ourselves to be the worthy opposition," she told her colleagues as the debate was wrapping up.

Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this report. Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042