Nebraska Legislator Filibusters Everything to Slow Bill to Ban Gender Transitions for Minors
Halfway through Nebraska’s 90-day legislative session, the unicameral Senate has not passed a single bill. The glacial pace is due to Nebraska Senator Machaela Cavanaugh (D), who has pledged to filibuster every single bill — including those she agrees with — over the Let Them Grow Act, a bill (LB574) that would prohibit minors from gender transition procedures such as the amputation of healthy organs, which Cavanaugh said legislated “hate.” This week, that might come to an end.
Cavanaugh began her filibuster on February 23, during consideration of an uncontroversial bill on property taxes, LB147. During the next three days, she monopolized debate time, “discussing everything but the bill, including her favorite Girl Scout cookies, Omaha’s best doughnuts, and the plot of the animated movie ‘Madagascar,’” wrote The Associated Press.
“I am going to make it painful, painful for everyone, because if you want to inflict pain upon our children, I am going to inflict pain upon this body,” said Cavanaugh. “I have nothing, nothing but time, and I am going to use all of it. … So, if LB574 gets an early floor debate and moves forward, it will be very painful for this body.”
The Nebraska legislature can hold up to eight hours of debate per legislative day, around committee sessions and other business; Cavanaugh has used every second.
“I want to slow everything down,” explained Cavanaugh, adding, “I want to annoy you. I want you to genuinely be frustrated.” She promised, “I will burn the session to the ground over this bill.”
The unusual stand has gained Cavanaugh praise from LGBT advocacy groups and devoted supporters who have dropped off food and provided child care for Cavanaugh’s three children.
Her colleagues “forced her hand with their lack of collegiality,” Cavanaugh insisted. “This body decided they wanted me to go on — I don’t know what we want to call this — my vendetta? — on behalf of trans kids. Because this is how the session is gonna be — for every bill.”
Cavanaugh explained that she was provoked into an all-out filibuster by the introduction of a record number of bills that are designed to inhibit highly controversial pro-transgender causes, including gender transition procedures for minors, drag shows for minors, and biological males being allowed to compete in women’s sports. “These bills are steppingstones in the eradication of trans Nebraskans and voting for them is voting for a stepping stone in genocide,” said Cavanaugh.
But that claim was a bit too much for fellow Senator Julie Slama (R) to stomach. Slama filed a motion to censure Cavanaugh over her genocide comments. “Today’s action is not something I take lightly, but I refuse to sit silently while Senator Cavanaugh compares a bill protecting girls sports to the horrific mass executions of millions of people,” said Slama. “If you are participating in this filibuster, and you are not immediately condemning what she is saying, you are complacent in an erasure for the millions of lives lost to genocide and you are helping her spout some of the most offensive nonsense I have ever heard spoken on the mic on this floor.” Senate Speaker John Arch (R) has not taken up the motion.
Speaker Arch has resisted calls from both sides to either weaken the filibuster or dilute the majority’s legislative priorities, citing his responsibility to protect the institution of the Senate. “The rules are set up to protect the minority voice,” Arch said. “It is it is purposefully hard to suppress minority voice, and that’s the way it should be.”
On the other hand, Arch explained, “I am being asked to stifle debate — but only for those bills the minority asks me to stifle. I’m being asked to put my thumb on the scale and tell other senators that they should not introduce or prioritize bills. I’m committed to the preservation of this institution, and I will not do that.”
The Nebraska state legislature is one of only a handful that permit legislators to filibuster. Under the legislature’s rules, a legislator may file a cloture motion (to end debate) once unless “in the presiding officer’s opinion, a full and fair debate has not been afforded.” A cloture motion requires a two-thirds majority, or 33 Nebraska senators. However, “a motion for cloture shall be in order except while a member is speaking,” which means no vote can occur so long as a senator keeps on talking.
Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler said filibuster delays had only happened a couple times over the past 10 years, but not usually this early. “What is really uncommon is the lack of bills that have advanced,” Metzler said. “Usually, we’re a lot further along the line than we’re seeing now.” Only 26 bills have advanced through the first of three rounds of debate required to obtain a final vote. Metzler said there is normally two to three times that many bills by mid-March.
During Cavanaugh’s three-week filibuster, only three bills have advanced. “But I’m not aware of anyone carrying out a filibuster to this extent,” Cavanaugh said. “I know it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for me. But there is a way to put an end to — just put a stop to this hateful bill.” Cavanaugh calculated that she can slow down the process so that the legislature only has time to pass around 55 bills this session before they run out of time.
Speaker Arch exhorted his colleagues, “These issues will challenge us to conduct ourselves with decorum during the remaining days. The public expects nothing less and we should expect nothing less of each other. Let’s measure our words carefully and demonstrate statesmanship in the days ahead.”
However, Arch also modified the schedule to maximize the amount of debating time — and therefore bills — the Senate can vote on. He has kept the legislature in session through the lunch hour, and he plans to begin all-day debates on March 28. He also moved up the date when the legislature would begin having evening debates from the expected date of April 11 to the earliest possible March 28.
“This approach will prevent us from getting to many of our  priority bills, but it will not dictate which bills those will be,” said Arch. “Both sides of the difficult social issues have stated their positions with little room for compromise … but I’m not giving up.”
Late last week, Cavanaugh switched her strategy in a deal with Arch. Instead of indefinitely postponing a vote on LB574, she agreed to hold one as early as possible, confident that it would fail. Cavanaugh promised to end her filibuster on Thursday afternoon, March 16, and Arch scheduled a vote on LB574 for Tuesday, March 21. Cavanaugh’s spokesperson expects the bill to receive a cloture vote on Thursday, March 23.
“It’ll fail on cloture,” predicted Cavanaugh. LB574 needs 33 votes to proceed on cloture. It currently has 23 cosponsors, plus principal sponsor Sen. Kathleen Kauth (R). While officially nonpartisan, the chamber is divided into 32 Republicans and 17 Democrats, which means the cloture motion would need support from at least one Democrat to pass.
“I want your vote on these bills,” Cavanaugh told members last week, saying that she had decided to get the “bloody hands” of LB574 supporters on the record.
If LB574 fails, Cavanaugh promised to end her filibuster for good, saying, “It’s time to get some work done for Nebraska.”
Meanwhile, Kauth, the bill’s sponsor, is also eager for a vote. She had previously criticized the filibuster, “What this is doing is taking the ball and going home.” The filibuster’s supporters “don’t want to acknowledge the support I have for this bill,” said Kauth. “We should be allowed to debate this.”
“It’s absolutely worth it to protect kids,” Kauth added. “I also think it’s worth it to say no, we’re not going to give into that kind of political extortion.”
All session long, a small minority of Nebraska legislators with pro-LGBT convictions have pestered Kauth’s Let Them Grow Act and likeminded legislation — including a pro-life heartbeat bill, a girls’ sports bill, and a bill to ban drag shows with minors present — with uncommon maneuvers. No sooner were the bills introduced on January 17 than Senator Danielle Conrad (D) moved to adjourn the legislature sine die, which would have ended the legislative session then and there. Senators who had left for lunch had to hurry back to defeat the motion. Senator Megan Hunt (D) also moved immediately to indefinitely postpone LB574, a motion which the legislature would have to consider before voting on the bill itself.
Hunt continued to attack LB574 and similar bills during the committee process, introducing amendment after amendment (34 of the session’s first 75 amendments) to completely derail the legislation. One amendment she offered would reword LB574’s prohibition on “gender altering procedures” to prohibit “gender affirming procedures,” while another would have changed the target of the prohibition from minors to “a legislator appointed by the governor,” as Kauth originally was, before she won reelection in her own right. On another bill prohibiting drag shows with children present, Hunt offered an amendment that would prohibit children from attending Bible camps. To show she wasn’t serious, Hunt tweeted, “I would withdraw it if it had the votes to pass.”
Senator Cavanaugh’s unprecedented filibuster of all legislative business is the latest tactic by the Nebraska Senate’s pro-transgender minority to try to derail a bill to prohibit gender transition procedures on minors.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.