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Lawmaker pauses filibuster on agreement to debate trans bill

Nebraska's Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh has paused her persistent filibuster over a bill banning transgender gender-affirming therapies.
Lawmaker pauses filibuster on agreement to debate trans bill
Posted at 10:30 PM, Mar 17, 2023

A lawmaker who has been holding up the work of the Nebraska Legislature for weeks to protest a bill that would ban gender-affirming therapies for minors has paused her persistent filibuster in a deal that will see lawmakers debate the bill next week.

Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, of Omaha, had been staging a filibuster of every single bill before the legislative body — even ones she supported — since late February to protest the bill. Introduced by a freshman lawmaker and supported by hard-right conservatives, the bill would outlaw gender-affirming therapies such as hormone treatments and gender-affirmation surgery for those 18 and younger.

Cavanaugh launched her effort when the bill advanced out of committee, introducing amendment after amendment and spending as much time as Nebraska rules allowed on the microphone to hold bills hostage on the legislative floor. She said she would continue to do so through the end of the 90-day session.

“I will burn the session to the ground over this bill," Cavanaugh said at the time.

By the halfway point of the session Wednesday, not a single bill had passed, and only a handful had advanced from the first of three rounds of debate, thanks to Cavanaugh’s relentless filibustering.

But on Thursday, Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch announced that an agreement had been reached to break the filibuster after Cavanaugh approached him seeking a compromise. Cavanaugh agreed to pause her filibustering if Arch agreed to push the trans therapies bill to the front of the queue. Debate on the bill will now start Tuesday when the Legislature reconvenes from a long weekend break.

“We both agreed that it would be best to stop talking about the issue on other bills, but rather just debate the bill itself,” Arch said.

Cavanaugh had said early in the process that she hoped to keep the bill from making it to the legislative floor for debate. But by Wednesday, she wanted a vote to put on the record of which lawmakers would “legislate hate against children."

The deal is likely a sign that Cavanaugh thinks she has the votes to kill the bill when a vote is taken, expected Thursday. If the bill advances, she will resume filibustering every bill for the remainder of the session, she told several news outlets.

The Nebraska bill and another that would ban trans people from using bathrooms and locker rooms or playing on sports teams that don’t align with the gender listed on their birth certificates are among roughly 150 bills targeting transgender people that have been introduced in state legislatures this year. Bans on gender-affirming care for minors have already been enacted this year in some Republican-led states, including South Dakota, Utah and Mississippi. Arkansas and Alabama have bans that were temporarily blocked by federal judges.

A sweeping bill in Kentucky that bans gender-affirming care in minors was rushed through the legislative process this week by Republicans and passed Thursday. It is expected to survive a promised veto by the governor

As in those states, conservative lawmakers dominate in Nebraska. But the Nebraska Legislature is unique in a couple of ways: It is officially nonpartisan and a one-chamber body with only 49 lawmakers. Although bills can win approval with a simple majority, it takes 33 votes to overcome a filibuster. The Nebraska Legislature is currently made up of 32 registered Republicans and 17 registered Democrats — just enough for the minority to block bills they don't like if they stick together.

LGBTQ advocacy group OutNebraska has put out a call for opponents of the bill to show up en masse at the state Capitol next week, wearing purple, blue, pink and/or white, to fill the chamber’s gallery.

Arch issued his own call ahead of next week's debate, noting that passions on both sides will be high.

“Colleagues, these issues will challenge us to conduct ourselves with decorum during the remaining days,” he said. "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.”

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