It was a routine, unanimously supported liquor tax bill that saw state Sen. Machella Cavanaugh take the floor of the Nebraska Legislature last week. She offered her support, then spent the next three days debating everything but the bill, including her favorite Girl Scout cookies, Omaha’s best donuts and the plot of the animated film Madagascar.
He also spent that time opposing an illegal bill gender-affirming therapies For 18 and younger. It was the bill’s advancement out of committee that prompted Kavanaugh to pledge three weeks ago that every bill introduced in the Legislature this year, even those he supports, would be passed.
“If this legislature collectively decides that child hate legislation is our priority, then I’m going to make it painful, painful for everybody,” said the married Omaha mother of three. “I will overturn the session on this bill.”
True to his word, Kavanaugh has slowed down legislation, making amendments to every bill that reaches the Senate floor and occupying the full eight hours allowed by the rules, even during the week he was there. suffers from a sore throat. Wednesday marks the halfway point of this year’s 90-day session, and no bills will pass thanks to Cavanaugh’s relentless wrangling.
Legislature Clerk Brandon Metzler said such a delay has only happened a handful of times in the last 10 years.
“But what’s really rare is the lack of bills that have come forward,” Metzler said. “Typically, we’re much further along the line than we see now.”
In fact, just 26 bills advanced through the first of three rounds of debate required to pass a bill in Nebraska. By mid-March, that number will typically be two to three times that number, Metzler said. In the past three weeks since Kavanaugh began his bill blockade, only three bills have been advanced.
The Nebraska bill and another that would bar 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 state legislatures this year. Barriers to gender-affirming care for minors have already taken effect this year in some Republican-led states, including South Dakota and Utah, and Republican governors Tennessee Mississippi and Mississippi are expected to sign similar bans into law. And Arkansas and Alabama have bans that have been temporarily blocked by federal judges.
Cavanaugh’s efforts have won the appreciation of the LGBTQ community, said Abby Swatsworth, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group OutNebraska. The organization is encouraging members and others to flood state lawmakers with calls and emails to support Cavanaugh’s efforts and speak out against transgender bills.
“We really see it as a heroic effort,” Swatsworth said of the filibuster. “It makes a lot of sense when an ally does more than just provide an ally service. He’s really leading this charge.”
Both Kavanaugh and the conservative Omaha lawmaker who introduced the trans bill, state Sen. Kathleen Kaut, said they are committed to protecting children. Cavanaugh cites a 2021 survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, which found that 58% of transgender and non-binary youth in Nebraska had seriously considered of suicide in the previous year, and more than 1 in 5 reported that they had. had tried it.
“This is a bill that attacks trans children,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s hate legislation. It is a legislative abomination. The children of Nebraska deserve someone to stand up and fight for them.”
Coutt said she tries to protect children from undergoing gender-affirming treatments that they may later regret as adults. He characterized treatments such as 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 young people.
Cavanaugh and other lawmakers who support his filibuster efforts “don’t want to accept the support that I have for this bill,” Coutt said.
“We should be allowed to discuss it,” he said. “What this does is take the ball and go home.”
Nebraska’s unique unicameral legislature is officially nonpartisan, but is dominated by members who are registered Republicans. While bills can be approved with a simple majority in the 49-seat body, 33 votes are needed to overcome a tie. The Legislature is currently made up of 32 registered Republicans and 17 registered Democrats, but the narrow margin means the removal of one Democrat could allow Republicans to pass the laws they want.
Democrats have had some success using filibusters, which use up valuable session time, delay votes on other issues and force lawmakers to work longer. Last year, conservative lawmakers failed to overcome Democratic caucuses to pass an abortion ban or a law that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
Kavanaugh said he took a page from the playbook of Ernie Chambers, the left-leaning former lawmaker from Omaha who was the longest-serving legislator in state history. He mastered the use of the filibuster to try to carry bills he opposed and force support for bills he supported.
“But I’m not aware of anyone filibustering to this extent,” Cavanaugh said. “I know it’s frustrating. It’s disappointing to me. But there is a way to put an end to it. just end this hateful bill.”
Chambers praised Kavanaugh’s “tenacity, grit and resilience to fight as hard as he could using the rules” to protect the marginalized, adding: “I’d fight him right there 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 round-the-clock debate when committee hearings on the bills conclude later this month.
But even as frustration grew over the convoluted process, the Republican speaker defended Kavanaugh’s use of the filibuster.
“The rules allow him to do that, and those rules are there to protect the minority voice,” Arch said. “We may find that we pass fewer bills, but the bills that we do pass are going to be bigger bills for us.”
Chambers said it’s a sign that Cavanaugh’s efforts are working. Typically, the speaker steps in and will seek to delay the bill, causing the delay to allow more urgent legislation such as tax cuts or budget items to move forward.
“I think you’re going to start seeing some of that,” Chambers said. “I think if (Cavanaugh) has the physical stamina, he can do it. I don’t think he’s shooting blanks.”