LINCOLN — A political shift in the Nebraska Legislature and the return of a master of blocking legislation have prompted an increase in a frustrating tactic this year: the filibuster.
The legislative maneuver, in which an endless string of amendments and motions are used to stop a bill, is being employed more often by conservatives in the 49-member body, who are finding themselves in the minority on more issues this year.
Conservatives have used filibusters in recent weeks to block the expansion of Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, and to prevent the repeal of the death penalty.
Both bills had the support of a majority of state senators, 25 of 49, but lacked the 33 votes needed to stop a filibuster and advance the measures.
The use of the filibuster is at a seven-year high, in part because State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a master of the tactic, returned to the Legislature after a four-year hiatus due to term limits, but also because conservatives have embraced it.
Some lawmakers and observers have complained that, as in politically gridlocked Washington, D.C., it no longer is enough to have a simple majority to advance proposals or pass laws; now it takes a supermajority.
They offer several explanations, including an increase in partisan politics, a shift to more moderates in the body and term limits, which they say leads lawmakers to focus more on short-term victories than long-term policy.
“We really are looking more and more like (the U.S.) Congress,” said veteran Lincoln lobbyist Walt Radcliffe. “I don't think that's anything anyone would want to emulate.”
Others, though, say the rise in the use of filibusters simply reflects the divisive issues being debated this year.
“It's sort of become the myth of this session that everything is being filibustered,” said Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh. “It just depends on what issues come out on the floor.”
A classic filibuster lasts eight hours, but several times senators also bogged down debate with talk-fests on nonserious amendments.
So far this year, six cloture motions have been filed to end debate. Such motions require 33 votes. The 2013 session has had the most cloture votes since 11 were logged in 2006.
In addition, a number of bills have been blocked by just the threat of a filibuster. Supporters of Medicaid expansion, for example, allowed their bill to be dropped when they sensed they didn't have enough votes to end debate. In that instance, a group of at least 17 senators signed a letter pledging their opposition to the bill. That number, 17, is significant because it would be just enough to block a cloture motion.
Some lawmakers said it was unprecedented that such a “petition” was used to block legislation. Others said it was appropriate because the bill wasn't going anywhere unless supporters could find 33 votes. It was simply a way opponents could show they had at least 17 senators opposing it.
Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, the main sponsor of the Medicaid expansion bill, said that it's an unfortunate trend if every bill needs 33 votes to advance instead of a simple majority.
That, Campbell said, changes the focus from “working out the best policy” to gaining a supermajority.
“In the long run, that hurts the policy of the state,” she said.
The officially nonpartisan Legislature, Campbell said, seems more polarized this year, with more senators on the far right and far left who are unwilling to compromise.
“Maybe the Legislature is a little bit more reflective of what we see across the country,” she said, although adding: “There's a lot of variables here. It's hard to point to one of them.”
Several senators blamed the dysfunction on a turnover of leadership in the Legislature and the election of 11 new senators who, as a group, are more moderate than their predecessors. Others said it takes time to form coalitions, pointing to the three years it took to put together a supermajority to push through a law allowing taxpayer-paid prenatal services for the babies of illegal immigrants.
Conservatives lost key leaders to term limits this year, such as Sens. Mike Flood, Deb Fischer, Lavon Heidemann and Chris Langemeier. Lacking the numbers to pass conservative legislation, they've been forced to adopt defensive strategies to stop legislation they oppose.
The return of Chambers, who served 38 years in the one-house Legislature before being forced out by term limits in 2008, has been a big factor.
Filibusters dropped markedly during the four years he was sitting out, from 2009 to 2012. Some senators said other lawmakers have learned by watching Chambers how to effectively kill a bill through a filibuster or by using motions to talk about other matters.
Tuesday was a good example. Chambers consumed a morning of debate, venting on everything from the blocking of the Medicaid expansion bill to his views on the Catholic Church.
The extended debate delayed a vote on a well-supported bill to give state judges a pay raise. It also made it less likely that other bills further down the agenda will come up for debate during the session's last two weeks. Running out the clock can be a powerful tool.
“Ernie has shaped this session. He has set the agenda,” Radcliffe said.
Last week, Chambers and Lautenbaugh, a conservative leader in the Legislature, traded verbal jabs on the floor over who was obstructing progress in advancing legislation this year.
Chambers blamed the conservative bloc, which he called “the clack,” and Lautenbaugh responded that it all depended on “whose ox is being gored.”
Radcliffe, the veteran lobbyist, blames term limits for the rise in filibusters. He said that since senators can serve only two consecutive, four-year terms, their thinking is shorter term and focused more on personal agendas than what's best for the state in the long run.
Controversial issues used to pass with 25 votes, Radcliffe said, but no longer.
“Continuity is not something the Legislature embraces anymore,” he said.
The frustration over legislative dysfunction has led to renewed talk about lowering the number of votes needed to stop a filibuster from 33 to 30 votes. That would be the same number of votes required to override a veto by the governor.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, a retired political science professor, said that such a change would be a two-edged sword. Filibusters are used by the minority to thwart the majority, but today's minority might be tomorrow's majority, he said.
“Be careful what you do with the rules,” Avery said.
Janssen said one of his bills that was blocked — a measure to require voters to present picture IDs before voting — would be the law if only 30 votes were needed to stop a filibuster last year. Thirty votes might have been enough to repeal the death penalty and expand Medicaid this year as well.
Sen. Greg Adams of York, the speaker of the Legislature, said that overall, 2013 has been a frustrating session, in part because of the increased number of filibusters.
He said that his main job as speaker is to ensure that the priority issues of the Legislature get a full and fair debate. Adams, in his first year as speaker, said he may have fallen short of his personal goals in that regard. The Legislature had debated 82 percent of all priority bills through last week.
Overall, Adams said, more factions within the Legislature may be willing to resort to the filibuster than in the past, but it's within the rules.
“From my personal perspective, I understand the rule. I would prefer more of these things come to a straight up-or-down vote,” he said. “(But) when people feel passionate about an issue, they're more willing to resort to more extreme measures like the filibuster to stop legislation.”
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