LINCOLN, Neb. – It was a mundane, unanimously supported bill on liquor taxation that saw state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh take to the mic on the Nebraska Legislature floor 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 doughnuts and the plot of the animated movie “Madagascar.”
She also spent that time railing against an unrelated bill that would outlaw gender-affirming therapies for those 18 and younger. It was the advancement of that bill out of committee that led Cavanaugh to promise three weeks ago to filibuster every bill that comes before the Legislature this year — even the ones she supports.
“If this Legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority, then I am going to make it painful — painful for everyone,” the Omaha married mother of three said. “I will burn the session to the ground over this bill.”
True to her word, Cavanaugh has slowed the business of passing laws to a crawl by introducing amendment after amendment to every bill that makes it to the state Senate floor and taking up all eight debate hours allowed by the rules — even during the week she was suffering from strep throat. Wednesday marks the halfway point of this year’s 90-day session, and not a single bill will have passed thanks to Cavanaugh’s relentless filibustering.
Clerk of the Legislature Brandon Metzler said a delay like this has happened only a couple of times in the past 10 years.
“But 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.”
In fact, only 26 bills have advanced from the first of three rounds of debate required to pass a bill in Nebraska. There would normally be two to three times that number by mid-March, Metzler said. In the last three weeks since Cavanaugh began her 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 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 and Utah, and Republican governors in Tennessee and Mississippi are expected to sign similar bans into law. And Arkansas and Alabama have bans that were temporarily blocked by federal judges.
Cavanaugh's effort has drawn the gratitude of the LGBTQ community, said Abbi Swatsworth, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group OutNebraska. The organization has been encouraging members and others to inundate state lawmakers with calls and emails to support Cavanaugh's effort 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 does more than pay lip service to allyship. She really is leading this charge.”
Both Cavanaugh and the conservative Omaha lawmaker who introduced the trans bill, state Sen. Kathleen Kauth, said they're seeking to protect children. Cavanaugh cited a 2021 survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, that found that 58% of transgender and nonbinary youth in Nebraska seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and more than 1 in 5 reported that they had attempted it.
“This is a bill that attacks trans children,” Cavanaugh said. “It is legislating hate. It is legislating meanness. The children of Nebraska deserve to have somebody stand up and fight for them.”
Kauth said she's trying to protect children from undertaking gender-affirming treatments that they might later regret as adults. She has characterized treatments such as hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery as medically unproven and potentially dangerous in the long term — although the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychiatric Association all support gender-affirming care for youths.
Cavanaugh and other lawmakers who support her filibuster effort “don't want to acknowledge the support I have for this bill," Kauth said.
“We should be allowed to debate this," she said. “What this is doing is taking the ball and going home.”
Nebraska's unique single-chamber Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but it is dominated by members who are registered Republicans. Although bills can win approval with a simple majority in the 49-seat body, it takes 33 votes to overcome a filibuster. The Legislature is currently made up of 32 registered Republicans and 17 registered Democrats, but the slim margin means that the defection of a single Democrat could allow Republicans to pass whatever laws they want.
Democrats have had some success in using filibusters, which burn valuable time from the session, delay votes on other issues and force lawmakers to work longer days. 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 has taken 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 mastered the use of the filibuster to try to tank bills he opposed and force support for bills he backed.
“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.”
Chambers praised Cavanaugh's “perseverance, gumption and stamina to fight as hard as she can using the rules" to stand up for the marginalized, adding, “I would be right there fighting with her if I were still there.”
Speaker John Arch has taken steps to try to speed the process, such as sometimes scheduling the Legislature to work through lunch to tick off another hour on the debate clock. And he noted that the Legislature will soon be moving to all-day debate once committee hearings on bills come to an end later this month.
But even with frustration growing over the hobbled process, the Republican speaker defended Cavanaugh's use of the filibuster.
“The rules allow her to do this, and those rules are there to protect the voice of the minority,” Arch said. “We may find that we're passing fewer bills, but the bills we do pass will be bigger bills we care about.”
Chambers said this is a sign that Cavanaugh's efforts are working. Typically, the speaker will step in and seek to postpone the bill causing the delay to allow more pressing legislation such as tax cuts or budget items to move forward.
“I think you're going to start to see some of that happen,” Chambers said. “I think if (Cavanaugh) has the physical stamina, she can do it. I don't think she shoots blanks.”