When state senator Machaela Cavanaugh set out to block every bill brought by the Nebraskan legislature this session, it was kind of an accident.
She was so incensed by the advancement of LB 547, a bill looking to block gender-affirming healthcare for young people in Nebraska, she promised to hold up every single bill the legislature brought – including those she agreed with – unless her colleagues agreed to drop it.
If the bill continued to progress, she told her colleagues, she would “burn the legislative session to the ground”.
That was 23 February. Ten weeks later, Cavanaugh has spent some several hundred hours speaking on the house floor at length, delaying every single bill the senate tries to pass.
Sometimes she has filibustered bills that she would really rather be passing, like one agreeing on state senator salaries – a mere $12,000 a year – which, if she agreed to it, would mean she could get paid. She has filibustered till her lungs became sore; taken naps on her office floor between filibustering; she’s filibustered so much she’s barely seen her family.
“I imagine when session is over I will sleep a lot for several days. I’m so exhausted,” Cavanaugh told the Guardian in a phone interview, her voice hoarse.
She added: “It wasn’t a deeply thought out plan, it was just the tool I have available to me.” Nebraska’s legislature is technically non-partisan, though each lawmaker identifies either as Republican or Democrat, and that swing is currently in favor of the Republicans, 32-17.
“I’m in the minority party here – the only thing I have is time,” she explained. “We have a 90-day session and a limited amount of hours in which we can accomplish whatever we want to accomplish. And so I decided I was going to take control of that commodity. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” explains Cavanaugh.
Originally, Cavanaugh wanted to force her colleagues’ hands. Would they rather get on with their jobs, passing the huge number of bills – usually more than 200 in one session – required to keep a healthy state moving forward? Or were her colleagues so dead set on passing LB 574 that they would fight over every other bill rather than drop it? So far, they have chosen the latter. But Cavanaugh has stuck to her crusade because she feels she has no other choice.
“It targets a vulnerable minority population in such a vicious manner as to deny them access to lifesaving healthcare,” said Cavanaugh. “They are targeting children. I don’t view it as an option to do anything other than fight against it. That’s my job as an elected official,” she says.
“I just wish my colleagues would come together and acknowledge this is bad for the state. But they’ve chosen legislating a hateful bill,” said Cavanaugh.
One of the bills Cavanaugh has contributed to blocking in recent weeks was a six-week abortion ban in Nebraska.
“I’m grateful it failed to move forward. It is a total ban, essentially,” she said, in reference to the fact that many people don’t realize they are pregnant at six weeks, just two weeks after their first missed period. Realizing this, the Republican co-sponsor of the six-week ban also withdrew support from his own bill last week, effectively tanking it – the bill ultimately failed to pass by one vote.
Cavanaugh believes there is a marked similarity in the way that Republicans – who have brought 533 anti-trans bills since the 2023 legislative session started – target abortion and trans healthcare.
“They talk about the actual healthcare and how horrible it is. They really villainize it. And right before they block access to lifesaving care to people, they say: ‘because children need to be protected’,” she said.
“And just like that, you’ve eliminated health care for trans people in Nebraska, and you’ve essentially eliminated trans people’s ability to exist in Nebraska. It’s not about protecting anybody at all.”
These arguments certainly sound reminiscent of those used in a huge, ongoing national case, that will decide the fate of a crucial drug used in more than half of abortions in the US.
Plaintiffs bringing that case argue mifepristone – which is used in roughly 53% of US abortions – is hurting women and girls. As well as being the preferred method of US abortions, that drug is used in miscarriage care, and for lifesaving abortions. But an argument based on the vulnerability of women could be just the thing that drastically curtails access to the drug.
What happens on LB 574 next is unknown. In April, Republicans in Omaha agreed to compromise on the bill, but since then, conversations seem to have broken down. No compromise amendment has been submitted; but Cavanaugh’s colleagues still have 17 days left to try to pass LB 574 if they choose to. It’s unclear if Republicans will have the votes to pass the bill if it is advanced.
Cavanaugh and two of her closest allies in the battle against LB 574 – senators John Fredrickson and Megan Hunt – will continue to fight it, regardless.
“I think everyone I work with would say that I am a substantial roadblock. They all are as frustrated with me as I am frustrated with all of it … It still has one more round of debate, and it could fail or pass. If it fails, I will stop talking. And if it passes, I will continue talking,” said Cavanaugh.
Even if it does pass, Cavanaugh believes the bill won’t make it past an appeals court if challenged – because late last year, the eighth circuit court of appeals blocked an almost identical bill brought in Arkansas.
“If this bill passes, it will be tragic for the trans community in Nebraska. It will be tragic for Nebraska writ large … And then it’s likely to be overturned in the courts. And so we will have done all of this harm and it won’t even get the result that they wanted,” she said.
But she is looking forward to the session being over, and finally seeing her children and her partner. “I just want to do normal things that normal people do. Over the last 10 weeks, I’ve missed a lot,” she said.
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