Nebraska conservatives gamble on combining abortion, trans health bans
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Conservative Nebraska lawmakers are taking what could be an all-or-nothing bet by proposing to merge two of the legislative session’s most contentious proposals — one to restrict abortion and another that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.
The unconventional move follows conservatives' failure by a single vote last month to advance a bill that would have banned abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy. Now, conservatives are backing an effort to amend the transgender health bill to include restricting abortion to 12 weeks of gestation.
The strategy sets up a vote on Tuesday that could give conservatives a win on both abortion and trans health bans this year — or could see them lose both.
Here’s a look at the combination of the trans and abortion bans proposals and how the process of debating and voting on them is expected to play out this week:
HOW THE NEBRASKA LEGISLATURE WORKS:
Nebraska has the only one-chamber, nonpartisan Legislature in the country, meaning its process of passing bills is also uncommon.
Bills introduced at the beginning of the legislative session all get public committee hearings, and the committee later decides whether to advance a given bill to the full Legislature of 49 lawmakers.
If advanced, the bill must survive three rounds of debate to be passed. Noncontroversial bills tend to sail through the process. But Nebraska lawmakers rely heavily on the filibuster to stall contested bills. Each round has a set amount of time allowed for debate: Eight hours for the first round, four hours for the second and two hours for the third.
At the end of the allotted time, a vote is taken to end debate, called a cloture vote. It takes a supermajority of 33 lawmakers to end debate. If the vote fails, the bill is shelved for the remainder of the session. If it gets enough votes to end debate, only a simple majority is needed to advance it to the next round or pass it in the final round.
While officially nonpartisan, lawmakers self-identify as Republican, Democrat or independent and tend to propose and vote for legislation along party lines.
Republicans currently hold 32 seats, while Democrats hold 16 and one is a progressive independent who votes with Democrats. With such a slim margin, the defection of a single lawmaker from either side can derail efforts to pass or block bills.
WHAT HAPPENS ON TUESDAY?
Late in the afternoon, lawmakers are set to begin what would have been the final round of debate on a bill banning gender-affirming care for minors. But because legislative rules don’t allow amendments to be attached in the final round, lawmakers will instead debate for two hours on whether to send the bill back to the second round of debate with the abortion amendment attached.
If the motion garners at least 33 votes to end debate, the combination bill is certain to get enough votes to return for a second round of debate Tuesday night. The combined bill would have to survive another filibuster vote to advance to a final round likely to be held Thursday.
But if the first vote to end debate Tuesday fails, both the abortion amendment and the underlying trans health ban bill will be shelved for the year, according to the clerk of the Legislature’s office.
WHAT'S PROPOSED IN THE TWO MEASURES?
The trans health bill would ban hormone treatments, puberty blockers and gender reassignment surgery for anyone 18 and younger.
The bill advanced to a final round of debate last month on the promise from its author, freshman Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, and Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch to hammer out a compromise between supporters and opponents before a final vote.
Instead, bill opponents say, Kauth unilaterally put forth an amended version that would make exceptions for minors who were already on hormone treatments before the ban takes effect. It also would give the state's chief medical officer — currently an ear, nose and throat doctor appointed by the Republican governor -- wide-ranging authority to set rules for use of use of hormone treatments for transgender minors. Opponents say that would give a political appointee the power to block such treatments, even for those minors grandfathered in.
The abortion amendment would ban the procedure at 12 weeks of gestation, making exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother. Sen. Ben Hansen, a chiropractor from Blair, characterized his proposal as a reboot of a compromise amendment introduced during the abortion debate last month by Republican Sen. Merv Riepe that was initially rejected by conservative lawmakers.
Opponents note that Hansen's measure differs from Riepe's proposal in that it provides no exceptions for fatal fetal anomalies and doesn't explicitly protect doctors who perform abortions from criminal prosecution.
HOW CONTENTIOUS ARE THE MEASURES?
The trans health bill has been the most contentious this session, prompting Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh to follow through on a promise to filibuster every single bill before the body — even ones she supports — unless conservative supporters pull it. Her efforts 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.
Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt joined Cavanaugh's effort when the bill advanced from the first round of debate in March, revealing during the debate that her 12-year-old son is transgender.
The proposed abortion restrictions have drawn fierce pushback from those who argue that the state already limits abortion to 20 weeks of pregnancy and that restricting access further violates women's rights to have autonomy over their own bodies.
The six-week ban was derailed last month when Riepe withheld his vote to end a filibuster over it. Riepe was an original cosigner of the bill, but later worried that six weeks wouldn't give women enough time to even know they're pregnant. Since then, he has been praised by abortion rights proponents, but he's also endured calls from fellow Republicans for his resignation and censure.
“I've taken a lot of heat in the last several days,” the 80-year-old Riepe said.
Riepe has refused to say how he will vote on the 12-week abortion ban amendment.
Both the trans health and abortion bans proposals have brought hundreds of protesters to the Capitol on the days they've been debated, leading to speculation that thousands of protesters could descend Tuesday on Lincoln when the combination proposal is up for debate.