LINCOLN — One month after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Gov. Pete Ricketts has yet to give any indication that he will call for a special session to debate further abortion restrictions in Nebraska, leading some lawmakers to doubt it will happen at all.
After the leak of a draft opinion indicating that the high court was prepared to strike down the 1973 ruling that established nationwide abortion rights, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers said he would work with the governor to call a special session. Ricketts himself, however, said he would wait for the court’s official opinion before making a decision.
Following the final ruling on June 24, Ricketts announced that he would speak with Hilgers about what abortion policies could pass in the Legislature. At the time, lawmakers seemed to expect a special session — the biggest question was what the bill would look like.
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But since then, Ricketts has remained quiet and refrained from commenting on the probability of a special session. Any questions about a special session typically generate one answer: “Stay tuned.”
On Thursday, Ricketts again said that he had “nothing new to share” about a special session, and that he and Hilgers were still discussing it.
In the meantime, abortion remains legal in Nebraska up to 20 weeks after fertilization.
State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha, an abortion-rights supporter who opposes a special session, said she was surprised Ricketts did not immediately call for one.
At this point, Cavanaugh said a special session is “less likely than not,” but acknowledged that an announcement could happen at any moment.
“I’m prepared to go at any time,” she said.
Cavanaugh said the delay could be an indication that conservatives aren’t confident that they have the votes to pass an abortion ban. Multiple senators on both sides of the issue have said they don’t believe a total ban would pass in a special session.
This spring, lawmakers debated a trigger bill that would have banned all abortions in Nebraska once the Supreme Court overturned Roe. The bill would have made it a felony for anyone to provide any medication or undertake any procedure with the intent of ending the life of an unborn child, starting at fertilization, with no exceptions for rape or incest.
The legislation narrowly failed after an eight-hour filibuster when supporters couldn’t muster the 33 votes necessary for a cloture motion. The final vote was 31-15.
Since then, the bill’s supporters have gained one more vote — newly appointed Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha. Kauth replaced Sen. Rich Pahls, who died shortly after the session concluded and was not present for the trigger bill vote. Kauth said she would have voted for the bill, calling it “very solid.”
However, there is still one more vote needed to pass a ban, and Cavanaugh said the reality of the situation may be contributing to the hesitancy.
With abortion bans going into effect across the country, she said people who previously supported abortion restrictions are now thinking about the logistics of a ban, including legal and medical complications, rather than just their religious beliefs.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, who introduced the trigger bill, said she was negotiating with some lawmakers on alterations that would address sticking points in the stalled legislation — mainly that the bill would have inadvertently banned in vitro fertilization and hindered doctors attempting to perform lifesaving operations.
“We have to be certain that we cover all our bases,” Albrecht said at the time.
That marked a tonal shift from earlier in the year, when Albrecht said that she was confident the same bill could pass in a special session, and that she believed she had two additional votes to support a filibuster-quashing cloture motion.
Albrecht did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the current state of negotiations.
Cavanaugh said she’s heard that lawmakers are negotiating with supporters and opponents of the previous trigger bill, though she hasn’t been contacted.
Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha said people have reached out to him, but he hasn’t engaged in any talks.
Wayne isn’t firmly in either camp. He was not present to vote on the trigger bill, and declined to say whether he would support increased abortion restrictions Friday. However, he said he believed a complete ban would not pass in a special session.
Another potential roadblock is the cost of a special session, which was used as an argument in support of the trigger bill. Opponents argued that the Legislature shouldn’t pass a ban without knowing the Supreme Court’s decision, but supporters said it would save taxpayer money to pass the bill during regular session, rather than call a special session after the ruling.
Clerk of the Legislature Patrick O’Donnell said special sessions typically cost about $10,000 per day, and must last a minimum of seven days. He said sessions can often run longer if the Legislature is debating a more complicated issue. Last year, the Legislature held a 12-day special session to redraw the state’s political boundaries.
Even if a special session doesn’t happen, abortion restrictions will likely come up again in future sessions. The success of such bills will largely depend on the outcome of the November general election, which will bring in multiple new senators. Cavanaugh called the election the “most important in Nebraska history.”
“This election is critical,” Cavanaugh said.
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