Gov. Sam Brownback defended his decision to rescind protections for gay and transgender state workers before a U.S. Senate panel considering his nomination as ambassador for international religious freedom.
Brownback faced skeptical questioning from Democrats and friendly questioning from Republicans during his confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.
The hearing placed Brownback one step closer to confirmation by the full U.S. Senate. He will presumably resign as governor to take the position once that happens, but there is no set timeline.
Overall, Brownback emphasized that he would pursue freedom for religious minorities around the world.
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“I will stand up and fight for those communities as I have in the past,” Brownback said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic vice presidential nominee, grilled Brownback over his 2015 repeal of an executive order that prohibited discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual and transgender state employees that was put in place under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Brownback, who left the order in place for first term before repealing early in his second term, said the executive order addressed issues that should be decided by the Legislature.
“That was an order that created a right by the executive branch that wasn’t available to other people that wasn’t passed by the legislative branch,” Brownback said.
Kaine questioned Brownback over whether he would protect the rights of LGBT individuals. Kaine said that religion has at times been used to justify discrimination and mistreatment of gay and lesbian individuals.
Kaine asked if there was any circumstance under which criminalizing, imprisoning or executing somebody based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable because somebody asserts a religious motivation.
“I don’t know what that would be in what circumstance but I would continue the policies that have been done in the prior administration and working on these international issues,” Brownback replied.
Kaine wasn’t satisfied.
“I really would expect an unequivocal answer on that,” Kaine said.
But Kaine also said earlier that Brownback “has a lot in his background that suits him very well for this position.”
Brownback approached Kaine after the hearing and the two shook hands and chatted. Kaine wouldn’t say whether Brownback would get his vote, or those of other Democrats, but he doesn’t need them. Still, Brownback pledged Wednesday to work closely with members of both parties.
The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, said Brownback has bipartisan support and should be “overwhelmingly confirmed.”
Kaine’s questioning and apparent frustration with Brownback raises the possibility that he or other Democrats could oppose Brownback’s confirmation. It takes 51 senators for the nomination to be confirmed — a process that could take weeks or months — but with 52 Republicans serving in the Senate, and longstanding relationships with many of the lawmakers who will vote, Brownback is expected to have little trouble.
‘Ideal last chapter’
Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas, said Brownback should finish out his term as governor and not be confirmed. Anyone who would “use religion as a weapon against their fellow citizens” has no business representing their fellow citizens, he said.
But Sen. Pat Roberts urged senators to vote to confirm Brownback.
“Sam Brownback’s personal and professional commitment to religious freedom makes him an excellent choice to lead our nation’s efforts to promote religious tolerance and to fight against religious prosecution and discrimination,” Roberts said.
President Trump nominated Brownback to the ambassadorship in July after months of speculation over possible appointments.
The nomination came after a Republican-controlled Legislature voted to override his veto to force a rollback of his 2012 tax cuts into law. Repeated polling has also shown Brownback to be among the least popular governors in America.
But tax policy did not come up during the hearing and his political difficulties in Kansas seemed far away.
Back in Kansas, the governor “has been drawing so much fire for so long, he’s just a target,” said state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth.
In the ambassador job, Fitzgerald said, “I don’t think he’ll have as many enemies.”
David Kensinger, Brownback’s former chief of staff and campaign manager, said Brownback has been going out of his way to meet with Democratic and Republican members of the committee and their staff.
“Kansas is home,” said Kensinger, who accompanied Brownback to Washington. “The happiest I’ve ever seen him was when he got to come back home to Kansas and that’s still going to be home to him, always. But this is an opportunity... to have global reach on these issues.”
Brownback thinks he accomplished a lot of what he set out do as governor, Kensinger said.
“I think this is an ideal last chapter,” Kensinger, said of the ambassadorship. “It’s really the perfect coda to a remarkable career in public service.”
Promises bipartisan effort
Brownback as ambassador would be responsible for publishing an annual report on religious freedom in virtually every country in the world, along with a list of the countries that are the world’s worst abusers. The position is based in Washington, D.C.
The position was created in 1998. Brownback said Congress had worked hard to keep the topic of religious freedom worldwide bipartisan.
“Because of that, it’s had a strength I think some other issues tend not to have. I pledge to you to continue that bipartisan effort on it,” Brownback said.
Frank Wolf, a religious freedom advocate and former Republican congressman, said Brownback would make an “oustanding” ambassador.
If Brownback is confirmed to the job, he will take over the position as it is set to expand. The ambassadorship will absorb four other diplomatic offices, under a reorganization plan sent to Congress in August by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The office would gain more than a dozen staffers in addition to the staff of 25 it already has currently. Its $6 million budget would grow by about $1.7 million.