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With new senator, Nebraska abortion opponents gain ground

Posted at 11:33 AM, Jun 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-08 12:33:15-04

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Abortion-rights opponents inched closer to a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Nebraska Legislature on Tuesday that would let them outlaw the procedure if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its landmark legalization ruling, as it appears poised to do.

Nebraska lawmakers were two votes short this year on a bill that would have automatically banned abortions if the court gives states that power.

On Tuesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts appointed a new state senator, Kathleen Kauth, to fill the seat of the late Sen. Rich Pahls, who died in April due to complications from cancer. Pahls opposed abortion and would have voted for the ban, but he was absent during the vote because of his health problems.

Kauth, a Republican and owner of a mediation business, said she would "consider it an honor" to vote for a bill similar to a proposed abortion ban that narrowly stalled. Supporters fell two votes short of the support they needed to overcome a filibuster in the one-house Legislature, which effectively killed the bill.

"I am pro-life and I thought the bill that was recently presented was a very solid one," Kauth said after she was sworn into office.

Pahls was also opposed to abortion and likely would have supported the ban, but his health issues caused him to miss this year's vote where the bill stalled.

Ricketts and other top conservatives have said they'll seek a special legislative session this year to outlaw abortion if the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, as a draft opinion leaked in May suggests.

Supporters needed 33 lawmakers to overcome a filibuster on the proposal earlier this year, but the final vote was 31-15. With Kauth in office, abortion-rights opponents are now one vote shy of what they need to pass a ban.

One other lawmaker, Democratic state Sen. Justin Wayne, of Omaha, is seen as a key swing vote who might give abortion-rights opponents the last bit of support they need to pass it.

Wayne was absent from the legislative chamber when lawmakers considered the ban in April, and he has declined to say whether he would support or oppose it. An aide said Tuesday that Wayne wouldn't be available to comment.

Other Democrats have promised a no-holds-barred fight to preserve abortion rights in Nebraska. Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, warned in May that she would make a special session "the most excruciating, painful experience" that her fellow lawmakers have ever experienced.

Ricketts, who has fought for years to clamp down on abortion, said Kauth's position on the issue played a sizeable role in his decision to appoint her. He said he also appreciated her business background and involvement in various Omaha-area community groups.

"I always look for pro-life candidates," he said.

Ricketts has said he intends to work with Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, another Republican, on a possible special session if the court rules as they hope.

It's unclear how they would proceed if they still lacked the votes, but Ricketts said Tuesday: "If we call a special session, I fully intend for it to be successful."

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