Nebraska lawmakers are set to take up debate late Tuesday on a plan that would tack on a proposed 12-week abortion ban to a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for transgender minors.
The combination of the two highly contentious measures sets up what could be one of the most volatile debates of the session.
Technically, lawmakers are slated to take up the final round of debate on the trans health bill, which has already advanced from the first two of three rounds it must survive to pass and go to Gov. Jim Pillen’s desk. But because legislative rules don’t allow amendments to be attached to bills in the final round, lawmakers will debate whether to send the bill back for a second round of debate in order to add the abortion amendment to it.
Opponents of the move plan to filibuster for the entire two hours of debate allowed in the final reading of a bill. Conservatives in the unique single-chamber, officially nonpartisan legislature will need 33 of the body’s 49 senators to vote to end debate before the plan to merge the two issues can move forward. If they fail, both the abortion and trans health measures will be shelved for the year.
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Conservatives were stung last month when their bill to ban abortion after cardiac activity can be detected — which happens around six weeks of pregnancy, before most women even know they’re pregnant — failed to break a filibuster by a single vote.
Normally, the issue would be considered tabled for the remainder of the session. But last week, anti-abortion lawmakers sought to resurrect it by crafting a proposal to ban abortion at 12 weeks and attaching it to the trans bill.
Conservatives see the 12-week amendment as a compromise they believe could get the 33 votes they need to see it to the finish line. Opposing lawmakers say the amendment is an unprecedented attempt to take another bite at the apple of a measure they were promised by the Legislature’s speaker would not be revived this year.
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Adding to the tumult is the underlying trans health bill, which has been the most contentious of the session. Introduced by freshman Sen. Kathleen Kauth, the bill would ban hormone treatments, puberty blockers and gender reassignment surgery for anyone 18 and younger.
An amended version would make exceptions for minors who were already on hormone treatments before the ban takes effect, but it also would give the state’s chief medical officer wide-ranging authority to set rules for use of hormone treatments for transgender minors. Opponents say that would give a political appointee of a Republican governor the power to block such treatments, even for those minors grandfathered in.
Both restrictions on abortion and transgender people have been consistent targets amid a national push by conservatives in state legislatures this year.
The introduction of the trans health ban led Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh in late February to vow she would “burn the session to the ground” if it advanced. When the conservative Health and Human Services Committee advanced it anyway, Cavanaugh began an epic filibuster of every single bill before the body — even ones she supports — until the trans health ban was pulled or killed.
She and a supporting cast of lawmakers have done just that for nearly 12 weeks, even as the bill survived by a single vote through the first and second rounds of debate. The filibuster effort has greatly slowed the work of the Legislature this year, forcing lawmakers to package bills together and endure grueling 12-hour and sometimes 15-hour days to pass legislation.
If the plan to merge the abortion and trans health measures gets a go-ahead vote, lawmakers will turn right around Tuesday night and debate again whether to send the merged bill to a final round of debate. If they do, that final round is expected to happen Thursday, when it would likely pass.
Pillen, a Republican elected in November, has said he will sign the amended bill into law if it passes. The bill would include an emergency clause, meaning it will go into effect as soon as the governor signs it.
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