Voices raised, digs exchanged as debate begins on bill restricting trans health care for minors
Editor’s note: This report has been updated with discussion of a proposed compromise.
LINCOLN — Voices rose and personal digs were exchanged Tuesday as the Nebraska Legislature opened debate on the controversial issue of banning minors from obtaining some gender-affirming procedures.
And there was an offer of a compromise, but bill sponsors are unsure if they can get the proposal — designed to increase support and advance the measure — up for debate amid an emotional filibuster.
State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha, the sponsor of Legislative Bill 574, said her proposal was about protecting children from “irreversible and often dangerous procedures” to alter their gender — specifically, puberty blockers, hormone therapies and genital or non-genital surgeries.
Kauth said that in Europe, where there is much more experience about gender dysphoria or confusion, countries are “sounding the alarm” about allowing surgeries or drug treatments for minors to change genders.
Opponents, led by Omaha Sen. Megan Hunt, said LB 574 was about “bigotry, discrimination and hate,” and about denying the rights of parents and physicians to determine what’s best for their children and patients.
‘Kids know who they are’
“Kids know who they are,” Hunt said. “This body is much more radical right than Nebraska. They aren’t asking us to do this.”
LB 574 is one of several “culture war” measures introduced in the 2023 session and may indicate how far right the 49-seat Unicameral has shifted this year.
Debate over the bill strayed into questions about “collegiality” and “toxic politics” and whether LB 574 was part of a “national playbook” by conservatives over social issues such as trans rights. Several lawmakers commented on the difficulty of debating such a personal issue.
There was talk of dueling opinions from the medical community, with some senators arguing that the lack of agreement is a reason to support the bill.
State Health Board issues position
The Nebraska Board of Health, a panel appointed by the governor, issued a statement Monday is support of banning such procedures, though the American and Nebraska Medical Associations opposed the bill, as did several other medical groups, including those representing pediatricians and psychiatrists.
At least eight states — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah — have passed similar bans on gender-altering procedures.
But Omaha Sen. John Cavanaugh pointed out that Arkansas’ law, which served as the model for LB 574, has been blocked by a lawsuit. He said it was possible that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals would ultimately throw out that law as discriminatory.
Attempt at compromise
Kauth on Tuesday introduced a compromise amendment that would ban surgical procedures but not gender treatments that involve drugs.
She said the amendment was an attempt to address the greatest concerns expressed by some senators unsure about voting for the original bill. If adopted, Kauth said, the compromise would lead to the 33 votes necessary to end the filibuster and advance LB 574.
But the first-term senator said it was unclear by Tuesday evening if the amendment could come up for debate on Wednesday or Thursday, given other pending motions.
Standing in the way is Omaha Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, who has mounted a string of filibusters in recent weeks to protest LB 574. She pledged Tuesday to procedurally block consideration of any amendments, saying she wanted lawmakers to vote on the measure in its “purest, evil form.” Cavanaugh added that she had tried to offer changes to the bill in committee but was rebuffed.
“So now you want to compromise? No thank you,” she said.
Filibusters to return?
As debate opened Tuesday, Hunt filed a motion to kill the bill, pledging that if LB 574 advanced, the endless string of time-consuming filibusters — like that conducted over the past several weeks by Cavanaugh — would return.
But after a morning-long debate, Hunt’s motion failed on a 13-31 vote. That would leave LB 574 two votes short of the 33 needed to overcome a filibuster on the bill.
During floor debate, Kauth called Cavanaugh’s filibustering tactics “self-serving and childish,” while the Omaha senator defended her actions, saying she was acting well within the rules.
Omaha Sen. Brad von Gillern defended LB 574. “It simply requires children to wait until they’re adults to permanently alter their bodies,” he said.
‘Doctors tell us’ not to pass bill
But Sen. Jen Day of Gretna said that lawmakers had no business interfering with decisions made by parents and their doctors.
“Doctors tell us not to do this,” Day said of opposition by medical groups to the bill. “Why, as legislators, do we think we know better?”
Debate on the bill is expected to extend into Thursday, when a “cloture” vote will be taken to end the filibuster and advance the bill.
Opponents said LB 574 lacks the vote to advance. Kauth, who has 24 cosponsors on her bill, has acknowledged that it’s possible she doesn’t have the necessary 33 supporters.