Rules changes won’t stop filibuster fight in Nebraska Legislature

After volley of motions halted LB 574 debate, GOP majority cuts how many motions senators can file

By: - March 28, 2023 7:07 pm
Supporters of trans Nebraskans hold individual signs spelling out "TRANS RESPECT" following debate on a bill to restrict gender-affirming care

Supporters of transgender Nebraskans hold signs in the Rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol to meet senators following the second day of debate on LB 574 on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Frayed nerves over how much power the Nebraska Legislature gives to minority voices to delay or derail the majority’s will erupted into a floor fight Tuesday over Unicameral rules. The result: A frustrated majority set new limits on motions that slow the passage of bills. 

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

The senators causing the slowdown promised to continue finding ways to paralyze the session if the Legislature’s majority keeps trying to pass bills targeting transgender young people. Their top target is Legislative Bill 574, which would prohibit procedures such as puberty blockers, hormone therapies and genital or non-genital surgeries until the age of 19. It also would bar medical providers from making referrals for such care. 

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard secured a 32-13 vote passing the new rules, which restrict how often senators can seek to pause debate, send a bill back to a committee or indefinitely postpone discussion. Only one of each type of motion per day, per round of debate can be filed.  

“I think this rule change is a fair rule change so we can have full and fair debate on the bills as presented,” said Erdman, who spent much of the debate discussing how many bills had been bottled up. “Listen to who is in opposition, and you can quickly conclude why we’ve wasted 50 days.”

Resistance won’t stop

State Sens. Megan Hunt and Machaela Cavanaugh, both of Omaha, who have been leading the resistance to LB 574, said they would continue to find ways to slow down the lawmaking process, regardless of what tools the majority limits.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

By day’s end, they had made good on the threat. Hunt, Cavanaugh and State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln had filed 742 motions on the bills that have come out of committee, taking up each of the three slots senators have under the new rules to file priority motions. They promised to do so on every bill that reaches the floor.

“We are blowing up this session,” Hunt said. “The session is over, and it’s on your terms. The terms were made clear to you for the last four to six weeks. Hating trans kids is more important to you than the rest of this session. … Human rights are hanging by a thread.”

Republicans frustrated

Several in the Republican majority of the officially nonpartisan Legislature, including State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, said they were frustrated by filibustering Democrats who kept 30 colleagues from speaking more on the microphone during last week’s debate on LB 574.

State Sen. Mike Moser of Columbus said he and other GOP senators couldn’t trust assurances from Cavanaugh and other Democrats that the tactic wouldn’t be tried again.

Before Tuesday, senators could file as many priority motions on a bill as they liked. They could also withdraw the motions and introduce new ones, a technique that former State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha used to force the majority to kill or amend a bill he opposed.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn. (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Linehan said she was taken aback last week by the 15 motions filed that let opponents of the bill dominate floor debate Thursday about LB 574. She criticized the filibustering senators for embracing a tactic that let them call out other senators by name while leaving those senators no chance to reply on the floor.

“What happened last Thursday had never happened before,” Linehan said. “It wasn’t a debate. … Everybody who was speaking knew that nobody could respond. When you have a plan that you’re going to belittle people and they can’t respond … people are going to change the rules.”

Unusual changes

Erdman secured approval of his proposal to simultaneously suspend and change the Legislature’s rules until the end of the session, despite criticism from several senators that the legislative rules required holding separate votes to suspend the rules and change them, as well as requiring the Rules Committee to schedule a public hearing on any proposed changes.

State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said he understood that members of the conservative majority can do what they choose but said they shouldn’t ditch their own rules in order to change them. 

“It’s OK to win,” Wayne said. “Let’s do it the right way under our rules.”

Speaker of the Legislature John Arch speaks about rule changes proposed by State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Erdman dismissed the objections, saying that he is chair of the Rules Committee and would know. He said a proposal the committee didn’t adopt at the start of the session from Speaker of the Legislature John Arch was close enough to his proposed change that no additional public hearing was required.

The proposal adopted Tuesday differs from Arch’s earlier proposal, however, in the degree of limits set on state senators. Arch’s proposal would have limited senators to one of each type of motion per day per senator. Erdman’s allows just a single senator to propose one of each type of priority motion daily. 

Arch told the Nebraska Examiner before the rules debate that his goal was not to depart from decades of legislative tradition but to reinvigorate traditional debate on the bills being discussed. Senators, he said, would like to discuss the merits of bills and aren’t getting the chance.

He said he has heard no serious push to change any other rules this way. He defended his efforts to negotiate a way forward with Cavanaugh and said he would make sure the most important budget and tax-cutting bills get heard no matter the delays attempted.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

Filibustering senators find ways

State Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington said no rules change would be able to stop a filibuster. She said that determined senators would find a way even if 25 rules were changed. State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion said such efforts to stifle debate fly in the face of good governance. 

The legislative record for Tuesday shows a full page of amendments from Hunt and Cavanaugh filed on every bill that has made its way out of committee. Cavanaugh, whose weeks-long filibuster has drawn national attention, said she would not stop until the anti-trans bills are killed. 

“This does nothing to hinder my ability to do and achieve what I want to do and achieve,” she said.

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

Conrad criticized the legislative majority’s attempt to toss aside legislative processes whenever they cannot easily achieve the result they want. 

“A filibuster will flow like water” around the new rules, she said.

Erdman wasn’t convinced. He asked senators why Democrats would object to the rules change if it made no difference.

“We have given numerous and plentiful opportunities to the minority to have their voices heard,” he said. “The point today is today is the time to move on.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.