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To combat anti-trans legislation, state Democrats team up with unlikely ally: the filibuster

Democrats in Republican-led state legislatures are adding the filibuster to their toolkit when it comes to combating legislation targeting LGBTQ rights.

Floor action in the Missouri Senate last week came to a screeching halt as a band of Democratic state senators filibustered for two straight days a bill to bar transgender minors from accessing gender-affirming health care, causing frustrated Republican leadership to adjourn for a scheduled spring break a full day early.

In Nebraska last week, state Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh, one of the legislature’s only Democrats, entered the third week of her filibuster over proposed legislation to ban gender-affirming health care and abortion.

Unlike in the US Senate, the legislators in Missouri and Nebraska can only maintain a filibuster if they hold the floor by talking.

“If this legislature collectively decides that legislating hate against children is our priority, then I am going to make it painful, painful for everyone,” Cavanaugh said last month. “Because if you want to cause pain upon our children, I am going to cause pain upon this body.”

Late last week, Cavanaugh, who has been filibustering every bill in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature since Feb. 24, said she would pause her filibuster until Tuesday, when a bill to ban gender-affirming health care for transgender youth younger than 19 is slated for debate.

Cavanaugh said he expects the measure, Legislative Bill 574, to die shortly thereafter because it does not have the 33 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. If the bill does move forward, Cavanaugh plans to pick up the right where she left off.

“Part of the intention is to purposely slow down the legislature so that we pass a few bills,” Cavanaugh said of his filibuster in an interview with The Hill this week. “We have a limited number of days, which means we have a limited number of hours to pass legislation. So, the more time I take, the fewer things we have the potential of passing.”

“As we see bills that are targeting populations of people, I think it’s really important that we pass a few things — especially if they’re going to be those things,” Cavanaugh said, referring to legislative efforts to restrict access to gender-affirming health care for youth. “I’m forcing the legislature to make a decision. Do they want to hate the legislature and target a specific population of people? Or do they want to get work done?”

More than 400 bills targeting LGBTQ rights have been introduced this year in state legislatures nationwide, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. More than 100 of those bills specifically target access to health care.

Gender-affirming health care including puberty blockers, hormones and surgeries is medically necessary for transgender youth and adults, most major medical organizations have said, and several studies have found that gender-affirming medical interventions can reduce anxiety and depression and suicidal thoughts in transgender young people.

More than 300 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, where Cavanaugh has spent the past three weeks ranking Girl Scout cookies and breaking down the plot of the movie “Madagascar,” a small group of Missouri Senate Democrats have launched their own filibuster campaign over a package of bills to ban gender-affirming health care for youth and bar transgender women and girls from competing on female sports teams.

“Our community has been a political wedge issue since the 1950s,” said Sen. Greg Razer, a Democrat and Missouri’s only openly gay state senator, told The Hill in a recent interview. “Now they’re going after the trans community, and not just the trans community — they’re going after children.”

“If you talk to my colleagues, and you get them one-on-one, they will admit that they don’t know the first thing about trans lives, people or the process [of transitioning],” Razer added. “Yet, they are going to become a doctor and vote to ban this medical practice in the state of Missouri for political gain. That’s appalling.”

Two weeks ago, Razer led a handful of Missouri Senate Democrats in a two-day filibuster that slowed floor action to a crawl throughout Tuesday and Wednesday. The intent, he said, was to stall long enough for lawmakers to reach a compromise on Senate Bill 49, which would prohibit health care providers in Missouri from providing gender-affirming health care to transgender minors.

But after hours of closed-door debate, state senators returned home Wednesday evening without a deal and Republican leadership ended the first half of the Senate’s legislative session a day earlier than scheduled. The body returns to the capitol on Monday.

Razer said he’s prepared to continue the filibuster when the Senate reconvenes. While Republicans could technically force an end to the filibuster and bring the bill to a vote at any time under a rarely used procedural motion known as the previous question, or PQ, Razer doesn’t think it will come to that.

“I’ve never seen it done,” Razer, who is serving his third term in the state Senate, said. “It’s setting off a bomb in the middle of the chamber.”

“Our leverage comes from our ability to hold the floor and, at least in our eyes, take a very bad bill and turn it into just a bad bill,” said Razer of Senate Democrats. “We’re in the middle of a session and we haven’t passed a budget. We haven’t really passed any bills of consequence to send to the governor. If they PQ me, we’re shutting down the rest of the session.”

If that happens, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican who has backed legislation to bar transgender athletes from sport but has stayed relatively quiet on gender-affirming health care, will have to call the legislature back for a special session.

The use of a filibuster in the Missouri Senate is not uncommon, and both Democrats and Republicans have been known to use the procedure to make a point, political or otherwise.

Last year, state Sen. Mike Moon (R) — who this year is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 49 — filibustered for four consecutive days to protest a portion of the capitol’s dress code that prevented him from wearing overalls on the Senate floor.

But it’s also a useful tool for forcing compromise on controversial or polarizing legislation, states Sen. Lauren Arthur, one of just 10 Democrats in the Missouri Senate, told The Hill.

Arthur said he didn’t expect Democrats, with such small minorities in the legislature, to be able to kill the legislation entirely. Like Razer, she’s hoping the two parties can agree on a version of the bill that is in some way less extreme or restrictive than it currently is.

“I think no matter what Republicans or what Democrats do, Republican supermajorities in Missouri will end up passing this terrible legislation that endangers the lives of trans kids,” Arthur said. “But every day that Senate Democrats can delay a vote should be celebrated as a victory.”

But nothing is set in stone as of yet, and it’s possible that some negotiations have continued during the break, Missouri Mon. Tracy McCreery, also a Democrat, told The Hill.

“You don’t have to be an expert on human nature to know that it might be good to just give people a little bit of time to cool off,” McCreery said. “Maybe when we come back, we will have made some progress. At the very least, maybe people are a bit rested and not so frustrated with each other.”

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