It’s a mundane, unanimously supported bill on liquor taxation that saw state Sen. Machella Cavanaugh take to the mic on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature last week. She offered her support, then 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 movie “Madagascar.”
He also opposed an unrelated bill at the time that would have been illegal Gender-affirming therapy For those 18 and under. That bill’s progress out of committee led Cavanaugh to pledge three weeks ago to filibuster every bill that comes before the Legislature this year — even ones he supports.
“If this Legislature collectively decides that our priority is to legislate hate against children, then I’m going to make it painful — painful for everybody,” the Omaha married mother said. “I will burn this session to the ground with this bill.”
True to his word, Cavanaugh slowed down the business of passing legislation by making it to the state Senate floor and introducing the amendment after taking all eight hours of debate allowed by the rules — even as he was suffering from strep throat during the week. Wednesday marks the halfway point of this year’s 90-day session, and not a single bill will pass thanks to Cavanaugh’s relentless filibustering.
Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler said such delays have occurred only a few times in the past 10 years.
“But what’s really unusual is the lack of bills that have advanced,” Metzler said. “In general, we’re much further along the line than what we’re seeing now.”
In fact, only 26 bills have advanced from the first of the three rounds of debate required to pass a bill in Nebraska. Usually that number will double to triple by mid-March, Metzler said. In the past three weeks since Cavanaugh began his bill blockade, only three bills have advanced.
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 about 150. Bill targeting transgenders which have been introduced in state legislatures this year Prohibition on gender-affirming care for minors Already enacted this year in some Republican-led states, incl South Dakota and Utah, and Republican governors Tennessee And Mississippi is expected to sign a similar ban into law. And Arkansas and Alabama have bans that were temporarily blocked by federal judges.
Abby Swatsworth, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group OutNebraska, said Cavanaugh’s efforts have earned the LGBTQ community gratitude. The organization is encouraging members and others to flood state lawmakers with calls and emails to support Cavanaugh’s efforts and oppose bills targeting transgender people.
“We really see this as a valiant effort,” Swatsworth said of the filibuster. “It’s so meaningful when an ally does more than pay lip service to the ally. He’s really leading the charge.”
Cavanaugh and the conservative Omaha lawmaker who introduced the trans bill, state Sen. Kathleen Kauth, said they want to protect children. Cavanaugh cited a 2021 study 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 reported that they had. It was trying.
“This is a bill that attacks trans children,” Cavanaugh said. “This is legislating hate. It’s legislating obscenity. The children of Nebraska deserve to stand up and fight for them.”
Kauth said she is trying to protect children from undergoing gender-affirming treatments that they may later regret as adults. He characterized treatments like hormone therapy and gender 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 youth.
Kavanaugh and other lawmakers who support his filibuster efforts “don’t want to acknowledge the support I have for this bill,” Kauth said.
“We should be allowed to have this debate,” he said. “What is it doing going home with the ball.”
Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, but it is dominated by members who are registered Republicans. Although bills can be approved with a simple majority in the 49-seat body, 33 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. The Legislature currently consists of 32 registered Republicans and 17 registered Democrats, but the thin margin means that the defection of a single Democrat means Republicans can pass any legislation they want.
Democrats have had some success using the filibuster, which siphons valuable time from the session, delays votes on other issues and forces 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 he took a page from the playbook of Ernie Chambers — a left-leaning former legislator from Omaha who was the longest-serving lawmaker in state history. He excelled at using the filibuster to try to tank opposing bills and force support for bills he supported.
“But I don’t know of anyone carrying a filibuster to this extent,” Cavanaugh said. “I know it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for me. But there is a way to end it — just stop this hateful bill.”
Chambers praised Cavanaugh’s “perseverance, tenacity and courage to fight the toughest rules he could” for standing up for the marginalized, adding, “I’d fight him if I was still there.”
Speaker John Arch has taken steps to try to speed up the process, such as sometimes scheduling the Legislature to work through lunch to add another hour to the debate clock. And he noted that the Legislature will soon move into an all-day debate when committee hearings on the bill conclude later this month.
But even as frustration with the obstructed process grows, Republicans have defended Speaker Cavanaugh’s use of the filibuster.
“The rules allow him to do that, and those rules are there to protect minority voices,” Arch said. “We may find we’re passing fewer bills, but the bills we do pass will be the big bills we care about.”
Chambers said it’s a sign that Cavanaugh’s efforts are working. Typically, the speaker will step in and try to stall the bill allowing more pressing legislation such as tax cuts or budget items to move forward.
“I think you’re going to start seeing some of that happen,” Chambers said. “I think if (Cavanaugh) has the physical strength, he can do it. I don’t think he’s going to shoot blanks.”