Arch vows not to bow to filibuster pressure

March 14, 2023, midnight ·

Stop sign in front of Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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As a filibuster in the Nebraska Legislature dragged toward the three-week mark, Speaker John Arch Tuesday vowed he would not stifle debate on controversial bills. Instead, Arch told senators to be ready to work evenings, and warned some proposals might have to wait until next year to be debated.

On February 22, the Health and Human Services Committee advanced two bills – one to ban most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, and another to prohibit gender transitioning drugs or surgery for young people under 19.

The next day, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh began her filibuster – taking the maximum time allowed for debate on each bill, to make it difficult to debate and vote on those bills, which she opposes.

Cavanaugh and a few allies have taken up time, talking about everything from LGBT rights to fish fries to Girl Scout cookies. She has said she wants to create pressure for Arch not to schedule the gender transitioning bill for debate, and for other senators not to choose hot-button social issue bills as their priorities. For the most part, Arch had not responded.

That ended Tuesday. Speaking in stern tones, Arch said he would not bow to pressure.

“This year, I am being asked to stifle debate. But only for those bills the minority asks me to stifle. I am being asked to put my thumb on the scale and tell other senators that they should not introduce or prioritize bills. I'm committed to the preservation of this institution and I will not do that,” Arch said.

Instead, Arch announced, he intends to hold evening sessions beginning March 28, instead of starting in mid-April, as originally planned. Even with expanded time for legislative action, he warned some bills might not be debated until next year.

Cavanaugh was undeterred.

“(I’m) gonna just continue doing what I'm doing. If people don't want to take responsibility for their role in the body and their positions of leadership, if they want to put it squarely on my shoulders, that's fine. I'm not gonna stop doing what I'm doing, so we will just pass fewer bills,” Cavanaugh said.

She then continued to discuss opposition to the ban on transgender drug treatment and surgery.

Sen. Julie Slama slammed critics of the transgender treatment ban, and another bill aimed at restricting student athletes to locker rooms and teams corresponding to their biological sex at birth.

“One person, or a couple of people, have been able to bring this session and all of the wonderful bills that we should be considering to a screeching halt, because they don't think we should be protecting girls sports and they also think that we should be mutilating kids with surgeries before they turn 19,” Slama said.

She also said senators should not avoid debating controversial topics.

“The point of your job, whether you agree with it or not, is that we have those hard discussions. And that instead of holding the Legislature hostage, so you don't have to have those hard discussions, you actually debate and you work with your colleagues and you point out shortfalls or benefits of bills that you see. You don't just go, ‘Well, I didn't get what I want. I'm probably not going to get what I want. So I'm just going to shut down session,’” she said.

Slama also faulted the Legislature’s nonpartisan structure, which she said gives every senator equal power and weakens the power of the speaker.

Sen. Megan Hunt disagreed.

“I don't see this process as the institution failing Nebraskans. I see this only as leadership failing Nebraskans,” Hunt said.

For his part, Arch said he’s still hoping for compromise.

“At the present time, both sides of the difficult social issues have stated their positions with little room for compromise. I've had those discussions in private. And that is my conclusion as of today. But I'm not giving up on the possibility of compromise. There will always be an opportunity to move forward if there are two willing parties,” he said.

Cavanaugh, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, criticized the agenda set by Arch, a Republican. Cavanaugh said the two previous Republican speakers had found a way to move things along when she was filibustering.

“They would have things on the agenda. They would have Democrats’ bills on the agenda. Because then Democrats would want whoever was filibustering to stop, and they would be a real pain in the butt. And they'd come over to me all the time and they'd be like, ‘I've got this this this this. My thing is on there. Can't you see my thing is on there? Won't you stop? Won't you stop? Can’t we just get to my thing?’ But we can't do that. Democrats are not begging me to stop, because what are they going to beg me for? There's nothing on the agenda that Democrats want,” she said.

Actually, on the day Cavanaugh began filibustering, there were 13 bills sponsored by Republicans and five sponsored by Democrats on the agenda.

Despite Tuesday’s harsh words, some observers are still holding out hope for a productive session. At a news conference on legislation to expand the state’s workforce, Bryan Slone, head of the state Chamber of Commerce, was asked if he’s concerned such legislation might be derailed by the fight over social issues.

“I would say it's too early to make a judgment on that. I've been in this job for five years and basically, before St. Patrick's Day, which is usually my line of demarcation, I have no idea what the second half of the schedule is going to look like. And usually they accelerate at the end and magically get everything done. I suspect that's going to be the same this year,” Slone said.

Meanwhile, senators finished the task of picking their priority bills, dealing with everything from abortion and transgender issues to taxes, school finance and roads. Depending on how much time is available, those issues and the budget are likely to dominate discussion between now and the end of the session in June.

(To see a list of priority bills, click here).