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Nebraska lawmakers, governor weigh special session on abortion


Nebraska lawmakers, governor weigh special session on abortion

Jun 24, 2022 | 3:21 pm ET
By Aaron Sanderford
Nebraska lawmakers, governor weigh special session on abortion
State senators debate on the floor of Nebraska's unique Unicameral Legislature at the State Capitol. (Rebecca S. Gratz for Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska could be headed toward a special session now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, although it’s unclear what new abortion restrictions, if any, could survive a promised filibuster. 

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

The Legislature this year fell two votes short of passing a “trigger bill,” which would have banned abortion in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade — as it did Friday. 

A filibuster stopped Legislative Bill 933, and legislative leaders say little has changed  since then. The late State Sen. Rich Pahls was ill with cancer during the spring debate. He has since been replaced by Republican Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. But that gubernatorial appointment alone is not enough to flip the legislative math toward passage of a total ban, political observers said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said he was open to a special session, and several senators said Friday they plan to push for one, as soon as August.  

State Sen. Suzanne Geist, who helped lead efforts to pass a ban, said she thinks that the session will happen and that anti-abortion senators will have the votes to increase restrictions.

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha
State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

State Sen. Megan Hunt of Omaha, who led opposition to the abortion ban this spring, vowed to keep up the fight.  “We have already defeated an abortion ban in Nebraska and we will do it again,” she tweeted Friday. “We will defeat any other attempt to ban abortion in this state because the majority of Nebraskans understand that banning abortion is as extreme as it is unnecessary.”

State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh anticipates a special session, as well. “It’s a very, very scary time,” she said. “I just want Nebraska to continue to be a great place for my daughters and everyone’s daughters to live and have access to health care and have autonomy over their own health care decisions.”

Geist said the current Legislature has shown it is unlikely to pass a full ban, so senators who want to restrict abortions will have to figure out what can get past a filibuster.

Nebraska currently restricts abortions after 20 weeks, the point at which medical experts have testified that a fetus can feel pain. Mississippi restricts abortions after 15 weeks.

That Mississippi law is the vehicle a conservative Supreme Court majority used to overturn Roe v. Wade and give statehouses the ability to set their own limits on abortion.

“I think that there’s still some question about whether we will actually have a special session,” Geist said. “And if we do, there’s a question about what type of bill will pass.”

State Sen. Mike Hilgers
State Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

 Speaker Mike Hilgers, in a statement Friday, said he anticipates a special session this summer “to pass legislation to protect pre-born babies.”

“I will work with Governor Ricketts on the timing of a special session,” Hilgers said. “And, after reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion in detail, I will work closely with the Governor and my legislative colleagues on the scope of such protections.” 

Ricketts said he would work with Hilgers to determine what else can be done in Nebraska “to protect pre-born babies.”

“We had to wait for this decision to be able to do any planning,” Ricketts said. “I will have to coordinate with his [Hilgers’] office with regard to anything we would accomplish in the Legislature.”

A special session doesn’t come cheap. In the past, special sessions have cost about $10,000 a day, according to Dick Brown, assistant clerk of the Legislature.

That includes the cost of per-diem expenses for senators, as well as printing and paying pages and sergeants-at-arms. 

It takes a minimum of seven days to pass a bill, Brown said, but there is no limit on how long a special session can last.

Nebraska Examiner reporters Cindy Gonzalez and Paul Hammel contributed to this report.