Floor Debate Off To A Smooth Start…For Now

In its first week of taking up carryover bills for floor debate in the mornings, the legislature has been off to a remarkably smooth and…dare I say…collegial?…start.

Following the prior week’s differences in opinion over proposed changes to the legislature’s rules and last session’s bitter divisiveness that led to a weeks-long filibuster and partisan gamesmanship, senators came together this week to advance most bills on the agenda with little fuss. A handful of key measures were surprisingly passed with robust bipartisan support and members from both ends of the ideological spectrum speaking up in their favor — a sight that’s become increasingly rare, and which is very welcome for many of us. Add Sen. Aguilar’s prioritization of Sen. Day’s Summer EBT bill (LB 952) in the mix, and those of us that have been around for a while are feeling optimistic, seeing glimmers of what the nonpartisan body once was and could be once again.

One exception Friday that could be headed for a showdown on Select File was Sen. Lowe’s LB 541, which would make partisan the currently nonpartisan elections for the Nebraska and Omaha Public Power Districts: a controversial change, so a dust-up there was not unexpected. Even in the most productive of sessions there’s bound to be a filibuster here, a disagreement there — but at its best, the Unicameral functions as a problem-solving body that can work through policy issues and debate differences in perspective while maintaining mutual respect and the ability to come together around solutions members can find common ground on.

Still, observers have noted that all in all, there’s been a stark shift in the demeanor of how legislators are interacting with one another from last year. Will this spirit carry forward throughout the session? Hard to say. Everything I hear indicates that leaders like Speaker Arch, Exec Board Chair Aguilar, and frankly most members who aren’t ideologically extreme are very pleased with the tone and progress of the session thus far; that they want to keep this up, and so are motivated to continue collaborating with their colleagues, having constructive conversations and supporting one another’s’ bills where they can; especially to make up for the lost time of last session and to make quick progress through the precious little time in this short 60 day session.

The major elephant in the room here, and the factor that has the most potential to bring this collegial, positive progress to a screeching halt, is what’s to become of Sen. Kauth’s Sports and Spaces Act (LB 575). Recall that that bill would bar trans youth from playing on a sports team, using a bathroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity. After we all saw the absolute bomb Kauth’s LB 574 set off in the body last year, I’ve heard that leadership may be apprehensive about a repeat happening this year and effectively derailing the session, again. Not only would that further damage fragile senator relationships that some have cautiously rebuilt; it’s a bad look for leadership, reflects poorly on the body as a whole and their ability to deliver for their constituents, and obliterates each of their chances of getting good bills passed. As of this writing, the bill has not yet advanced from committee, though I believe a small but vocal group of supporters is exerting a lot of pressure on the Education committee to vote it out.

I have heard that families of trans youth have been meeting with key senators to urge them not to support the bill. Unless they are able to persuade one of the conservatives on the Education committee not to vote to advance it, my prediction is that it will make it to General File. From there, Speaker Arch holds a lot of power to determine what happens. Sen. Kauth designated it as her priority bill right away when session began, so it may have a leg up there, but typically a speaker would consider any priority bills that have been on General File longer as first in line for scheduling. By the latter half of March, the body is slated to take up the mid-biennium budget bills and other spending measures, and then by April, time’s almost up. So, this will all be a question of timing: if/when it gets out, how motivated Arch is (or isn’t) to have this fight on the floor, and how many other priority bills remain on General File ahead of it.

Speaker Arch Announces Cloture Policy, Debate Expectations

And now some notes about what to expect when we do, inevitably, see some filibustering. Speaker Arch announced this week that he will honor his previous policy of allowing cloture motions to cut off debate after 8 hours on General File, 4 hours on Select File, and 2 hours on Final Reading — here’s the kicker — unless he determines that “full and fair debate” has occurred sooner. This part is new this year, and he’s making clear that though he generally wants to provide a uniform standard, he reserves the right to wield his authority should it become necessary, e.g., if there’s an extended filibuster like we saw last year that becomes “exceedingly obstructive”. He’d make such a determination, he said, in consultation with the bill in question’s introducer and members in opposition based on the quality of debate and the number of members participating in debate. This makes it unlikely that we’ll see the same kind of extended filibuster that Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh led last year, unless opponents of a bill are able to fill the time with substantive, nonrepetitive content.

He further encouraged members to come prepared for quality debate, to use their time at the mic to discuss a bill and its effects rather than off-topic content, and asked that more members of each committee take the time to share their perspective on a bill about why they did or did not support its advancement from committee for the benefit of their colleagues who didn’t get to participate in the hearing. I’ve heard the sentiment that Arch has stepped up his leadership skills this year echoed around the building. Here’s hoping he keeps it up.

Until Next Week,
Your Capitol Fly on the Wall