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Behind one Nebraska lawmaker's filibuster to oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nebraska lawmakers haven't passed a single bill this session. That's because state Senator Machaela Cavanagh has filibustered on the floor of the state legislature for more than a month, just like she promised to do back in February.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACHAELA CAVANAUGH: If this legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority, then I am going to make it painful - painful for everyone.

CHANG: She's referring to LB574 or the Let Them Grow Act. And she uses the word hate to describe that bill - deliberately.

CAVANAUGH: These bills don't come from a place to elevate a specific community. They come from a place of trying to eradicate their existence. And all I can think of is that that is a very hateful way to do public policy. So, you know, to be concise, that's legislating hate.

CHANG: Under the bill's current version, physicians would be barred from providing gender-affirming procedures and medical care for Nebraska residents younger than 19. Machaela Cavanaugh joined us last week during a brief legislative recess. And I began by asking her, what is it like physically to filibuster up to 12 hours a day?

CAVANAUGH: Very tiring - very...

CHANG: I can imagine, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: ...Mentally and emotionally tiring, trying as much as I can to stay on topic of whatever the piece of legislation is that's in front of me. And when I can't, I just talk about whatever it is I feel like talking about. Yesterday, I spent a lot of time talking about Easter Sunday and my love of au gratin potatoes.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: They are quite delicious.

CAVANAUGH: They are. And I generally spend some amount of time speaking about the bill that I'm actively opposing, LB574. But other than that, I just kind of go with the flow. And whatever inspires me at the moment.

CHANG: You have said that you will, quote, "burn the session to the ground over this bill." I'm just wondering, do you worry that, by holding up so much of the legislative session - by slowing it down so drastically - that that will prevent other important issues, other important bills from being debated and passed this session?

CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm not in charge of the schedule. The speaker is in charge of the schedule, and he belongs to the majority party. And they are setting the agenda of what we are accomplishing this session, which is - part of my intention is to force them into deciding what it is that they believe we should be doing as a legislature. And, as such, we're not going to pass as many bills as we might in other years, but we are going to have to think about what it is we pass and what is important to us and what we value. And that is going to be reflected back to the people of Nebraska. So far, we have...

CHANG: But are you worried about alienating voters who might have other issues they want to see advanced?

CAVANAUGH: I am worried about the economy, and I think that there are some very significant, important pieces of legislation that we should be focused on. And I have been encouraging my colleagues and leadership to schedule those bills and to come and talk about that. They are choosing to prioritize legislating hate over the economic well-being of the state. That is a choice that they are making. They have the power and the ability to schedule bills that will move our economy forward, that will address child care subsidies, food insecurity, education. And the people in power need to start standing up and making choices that are best for Nebraska.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you, on the federal level, the Biden administration recently proposed a new federal rule change that would allow for schools to enforce some restrictions on transgender student athletes, but it opposes categorical bans. In your mind, is that enough to protect trans students' rights?

CAVANAUGH: I don't know why, as a nation, as policymakers, there is this newfound focus on trans children. Trans children have always existed. They have always lived in our society, in our schools, in our families. And all of a sudden, there is a decision by policymakers that we need to do something about them. And so I don't think any policies that restrict the rights of children because they are trans are appropriate. And I don't support any policies that restrict the rights of children. And I would like to see all of our policymakers stepping out of the bathroom, stepping out of the doctor's room and getting back to policy. And I'm disappointed that we continually don't do that.

CHANG: So do you see yourself filibustering on the floor up to 12 hours a day, day after day, forever? I mean, is there an endpoint in your mind?

CAVANAUGH: I would love for there to be an endpoint. That is what I hope for every single day. It is what I am striving for every single day. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues have just really dug in on this, and they don't want there to be an endpoint. So I don't know the answer, but I really hope that we can find a resolution that's best for the trans youth of Nebraska because they don't deserve this. They really don't deserve this.

CHANG: That is Nebraska State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh. Thank you very much, and be well as you continue.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

CHANG: That is Nebraska State Senator Machaela Cavanaugh. Her filibuster of LB574 is now in its seventh week.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEPECHE MODE SONG, "GHOSTS AGAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ivy Winfrey
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.