Nebraska lawmakers should hit 'reset' button to avoid last year's rancor, legislative speaker says

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Almost a year after Nebraska lawmakers drew national attention for a bitter feud that saw left-leaning senators filibuster nearly every bill, the speaker of the Legislature vowed Monday to do more to avoid another quagmire this session.

Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch said he will still follow the timetable that allows several hours of debate over three rounds of voting, but if he determines a filibuster is “exceedingly obstructive,” he’ll allow a vote to end it sooner.

“I believe last year was an aberration, and we all need to hit the reset button for this session,” Arch said on the floor of the Legislature on the first full day of bill debate this session. “So far, I believe we have done that.”

Nebraska has the country’s only single-chamber, nonpartisan Legislature, although lawmakers self-identify as Republican, Democrat or independent. Currently 32 of the 49 lawmakers are Republicans, which is one less than the 33 votes needed to stop debate on a filibuster. That means that unless one of the body’s 15 Democrats or its lone independent defects, Republicans can’t get past the filibuster to pass a bill.

During the last session, Omaha state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh led an epic filibuster of nearly every bill debated — even ones she supported — in an effort to derail a measure to ban gender-confirming medical care for minors. An amended version of that bill, which restricted care for transgender people under 19 in Nebraska and folded in a 12-week abortion ban, eventually passed and was signed by the governor.

Filibusters are rare in most state legislatures, but it's a common tactic in Nebraska to force compromise on contested bills, which must survive three rounds of debate to pass. Even so, last year's streak of filibusters is the longest in the state’s history.

The division over the majority's push last year for conservative agenda issues — targeting LGBTQ+ rights and abortion access, as well as offering taxpayer money for private school tuition and banning some books in public schools — led to one of the Nebraska Legislature's most acrimonious sessions on record. As the filibuster effort played out, lawmakers called each other “trash” and “garbage,” exchanged accusations of unethical behavior, and angrily swore retribution. That included a promise by Bayard Sen. Steve Erdman, chairman of the body's Rules Committee, to enact a slate of changes to weaken the filibuster.

While some rules changes were enacted last week, including one limiting lawmakers to 20 bill introductions each per session, Erdman’s proposal to loosen the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster was not brought up before the time allotted for debate on the rules changes ended.

Cavanaugh said Monday that she's not planning a repeat of last year. She said she'll filibuster only those bills she opposes, including one that would restrict transgender student participation in high school sports and limit trans students’ access to bathrooms and locker rooms.

“It makes no difference to me if the vote is called sooner or later,” she said. “They still have to get enough votes to end debate.”