It was a mundane, unanimously supported liquor tax bill that State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh took to the mic on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature last week. She offered her support and spent the next three days discussing everything but the bill, including her favorite Girl Scout cookies, Omaha’s best donuts, and the plot of the animated film “Madagascar.”
She also spent that time railing against a bill that had nothing to do with it gender-affirming therapies for those 18 and under. It was the advancement of this bill outside of committee that prompted Cavanaugh to promise three weeks ago to thwart every bill that goes to the legislature this year — even the ones she supports.
“If this legislature decides collectively that legislation against hate for children is our priority, then I’m going to make it painful — painful for everyone,” said the married Omaha mother-of-three. “I’m going to burn down the session over this bill.”
True to her word, Cavanaugh has slowed the law-making business to a crawl, introducing amendment after amendment for every bill that makes it into the Senate and consuming all eight debate hours allowed by the rules — even during the week she was suffering from strep throat. Wednesday marks the halfway point in this year’s 90-day session, and thanks to Cavanaugh’s relentless filibustering, not a single piece of legislation will pass.
Legislative Branch Secretary Brandon Metzler said such a delay had only occurred a few times in the past 10 years.
“But what’s really unusual is the lack of front-loaded bills,” Metzler said. “Usually we’re a lot further down the line than we see now.”
In fact, only 26 bills have emerged from the first of three rounds required to pass a law in Nebraska. By mid-March, there are usually two to three times as many, Metzler said. Only three bills have come out in the past three weeks since Cavanaugh began her law blockade.
The Nebraska statute and another that would ban trans people from using bathrooms and locker rooms or playing on sports teams that don’t match the gender listed on their birth certificates are among about 150 Bills targeting transgender people which were introduced in the state parliaments this year. Bans on gender-affirming care of minors were enacted earlier this year in some Republican-led states, including South Dakota and Utah and Republican governors in Tennessee and Mississippi are expected to enact similar bans. And Arkansas and Alabama have bans that have been temporarily blocked by federal judges.
Cavanaugh’s efforts have drawn gratitude from the LGBTQ community, said Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group OutNebraska. The organization has encouraged members and others to flood state legislatures with calls and emails to support Cavanaugh’s efforts and oppose bills targeting transgender people.
“We really see it as a heroic effort,” Swatsworth said of the filibuster. “It is extremely meaningful when an ally pays more than lip service to the ally. She really leads this charge.”
Both Cavanaugh and Conservative Omaha lawmaker who introduced the trans law, Senator Kathleen Kauth, said they are trying to protect children. Cavanaugh cited a 2021 survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, which found that 58% of transgender and nonbinary youth in Nebraska had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and more than 1 in 5 said they had tried it.
“This is a bill that targets trans children,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a law against hate. It’s a law against meanness. The children of Nebraska deserve someone to stand up and fight for them.”
Kauth said she tries to protect children from gender-affirming treatments that they may later regret as adults. She has called treatments like hormone therapy and sex-reassignment surgery as medically unproven and potentially dangerous in the long term — even though the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Psychiatric Association all support gender-affirming care for adolescents.
Cavanaugh and other lawmakers who support her filibuster efforts “do not want to acknowledge the support I have for this bill,” Kauth said.
“We should be allowed to discuss it,” she said. “What that does is take the ball and go home.”
Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature is officially bipartisan, but is dominated by members who are registered Republicans. Although bills can be passed with a simple majority in the 49-seat body, 33 votes are required to overcome a filibuster. The legislature currently consists of 32 registered Republicans and 17 registered Democrats, but the small margin means the exit of a single Democrat could allow Republicans to pass whatever legislation they want.
Democrats have had some success using filibusters, which burn up valuable meeting time, delay votes on other issues, and force lawmakers to work longer hours. Last year, conservative lawmakers were unable to overcome Democratic filibusters to pass an abortion ban or a law that would have allowed people to carry concealed guns without a permit.
Cavanaugh said she took a page from the playbook of Ernie Chambers — a left-leaning former Omaha lawmaker who was the longest-serving lawmaker in the state’s history. He mastered the use of the filibuster to try to ward off bills he opposed and to force support for bills he supported.
“But I don’t know of anyone who does a filibuster on this scale,” Cavanaugh said. “I know it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for me. But there is a way to put an end to it – just put an end to this hateful bill.”
Chambers praised Cavanaugh’s “tenacity, courage and perseverance in fighting as hard as possible, applying the rules” to stand up for the marginalized, adding, “I would be right there to fight with her if I were still.” there would be.”
Spokesman John Arch has taken steps to try to expedite the process, e.g. For example, sometimes scheduling the legislature to work through lunch to tick off another hour on the debate clock. And he pointed out that the legislature will soon move to a full-day debate once the committee hearings on bills conclude later this month.
But even as frustration over the cuffed trial mounted, the Republican spokesman defended Cavanaugh’s use of the filibuster.
“The rules allow her to do that, and those rules are there to protect the minority voice,” Arch said. “We may find that we’re going through fewer bills, but the bills that we’re going through are going to be bigger.” bills that are important to us.”
Chambers said it was a sign Cavanaugh’s efforts were working. Typically, the speaker will step in and try to delay the bill, causing the delay so that more urgent legislation, such as tax cuts or budget items, can move forward.
“I think you’re going to see some of that happening,” Chambers said. “I think if (Cavanaugh) has the physical stamina, she can do it. I don’t think she shoots blanks.”