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Filibuster over transgender bill stalls Nebraska legislature for weeks


The Nebraska state legislature failed to pass a single bill this year. One senator’s aversion to the introduction of a bill to ban gender-affirming care for Nebraskans under 19, coupled with the state’s unique filibustering rules, brought the session to a halt.

While filibustering isn’t rare for Nebraska’s unicameral legislature, Democratic state Senator Machaela Cavanaugh is the first lawmaker to filibuster any bill introduced on the floor, lawmakers and political scientists said. Traditionally, senators have merely paused debate on the bills they oppose.

If the filibuster does not end, the clerk predicted, as many as 30 bills out of approximately 820 bills submitted would be discussed this session. Senators opposing the bill to limit gender-affirming care say this is the first time their legislature has become part of the national culture war over transgender rights. Lawmakers also say the bill and the filibuster are both a sign that one of the least polarized lawmakers in the country is becoming partisan.

“This bill captures hate and targets trans youth,” Senator Cavanaugh told The Washington Post. “It is not our job to legalize hate. It is our job to protect our children from the harm this law could cause them.”

She has clearly defined her own priorities. “I will burn this session to the ground because of this bill,” she told the body last month. “I have nothing but time, and I’m going to use it all.”

After three weeks of the filibuster, Cavanaugh and speaker John Arch came to an agreement Thursday morning. She will take an afternoon break from the filibuster, and he will schedule the debate on LB574, the bill she opposes, for Tuesday morning, when the legislature returns from a four-day recess.

Then the filibuster continues.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Kathleen Kauth, a Republican, was brought forward for debate by the Health and Human Services Committee on the same day as a bill proposing a ban on abortion. LB574 would ban gender-affirming care such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgery for people under the age of 19.

Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, South Dakota, Kentucky and Tennessee have passed legislation restricting minors seeking gender-affirming care. Governors in Utah, Tennessee and South Dakota have passed the measures into law. In Florida, the state’s medical board has imposed similar limits on minors, and the state no longer allows Medicaid to cover it for anyone, regardless of age.

Cavanaugh does not want Nebraska to join those states. She began filibustering late last month, shortly after the bill made it to the Senate floor.

“Pilibustering is part of our system, we all resign ourselves to what Senator Machaela Cavanaugh is doing,” Kauth told The Post. “We find ways around it; we are ready to debate all night to get things done.”

Nebraska has a unicameral legislature: there is no house, only a 49-member Senate, which currently consists of 32 registered Republicans and 17 registered Democrats. Part of the chamber’s uniqueness is that while only a simple majority is needed to pass a bill, it takes 33 votes to break a filibuster.

Those who support LB574 don’t have 33 supporters, Democratic lawmakers said.

Cavanaugh said that while her filibuster is delaying legislative debate on the abortion bill and at least five other bills surrounding the rights of transgender youth, her number one priority is to ensure that LB574 does not pass.

“The dream would be that the bill would go away and we would get on with the work of the state,” she said, pointing to the bills about the budget and childcare subsidies.

Previously, Cavanaugh has sponsored bills to provide free meals to all students in Nebraska public schools and to keep babies with their incarcerated mothers whenever possible. She said she also sees the fight against LB574 as an effort to protect adolescents.

“Nothing is more important to me than protecting our children,” she said, adding she fears trans youth will be hurt by their own government and families will choose to leave the state rather than take LB574 into law .

Arch said he expects fewer bills to be passed this year because of the filibuster. Aside from approving the budget, “during this session we will address issues such as taxes, prioritization of excess revenue and school funding,” he said.

The vote of the legislature has varied, said Brandon Metzler, the legislature’s clerk. “Some people are annoyed, others are indifferent and some are accepting the filibuster,” he said. “It depends on their relationship with Senator Cavanaugh.”

Cavanaugh’s fellow Democrats blame Republicans for bringing the culture war to their normally bipartisan state assembly.

“Until this year, we had never had anti-gay bills, or bathroom bills, or bills banning gender-affirming care,” said Senator Megan Hunt, a Democrat serving her second term. “The legislature had never discussed a bill banning abortion until last year.”

Hunt and Cavanaugh said their constituents supported the filibuster, even if it meant delaying administration.

“People have offered all kinds of help from food drop off to childcare while Senator Cavanaugh is filibusters,” Hunt said. “This is because Nebraskans don’t want a law banning gender-affirming care.”

Kauth, who proposed the bill, told The Post she campaigned and won on gender identity issues.

“When I went door to door, voters told me they were very concerned about biological boys being allowed into girls’ locker rooms and about doctors rushing kids into transition,” she said. “These problems are more common than people think.”

She said her bill aims to protect children from gender-affirming care they may regret later in life.

The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, and other major medical organizations oppose restrictions on gender-affirming care. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement in August calling such care “medically necessary and appropriate” for some minors.

Hunt said that while the filibuster is a response to anti-LGBTQ bills being introduced in Nebraska, it is also a product of the current legislature’s inexperience and weak leadership. She said the speaker’s job is to show leadership and maintain the body’s impartial culture.

“This culture war stuff is coming from the newer senators,” she said. “They need mentorship.”

Political scientists agree that the history of maintaining an impartial legislature in Nebraska is changing.

The legislature, called the Unicam in Nebraska, used to be one of the least polarized in the country, said Geoff Lorenz, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, but that changed with the introduction of term limits for senators, such as the old guard. retired.

“Over the past two decades, the Unicam has been one of the most rapidly polarizing state legislative chambers in the country,” he said.

Nebraska lawmakers have successfully used filibusters to burn floor time, delay votes and have bills thrown out of the body. Conservatives have previously used them to delay votes on Medicaid expansion, and Democrats have run out of time on a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.

Cavanaugh said she learned a lot about filibustering from Ernie Chambers, a left-leaning independent and former senator who ended his second term in 2021 and was widely known for a masterful filibuster.

“He was my teacher, but I’m following it in my own direction,” said Cavanaugh. “Unlike his focused technique, I filibust everything, every day, no matter what.”

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