Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback might be one of the most unpopular governors in America, but in a hearing room Wednesday on Capitol Hill, his former U.S. Senate colleagues welcomed him briefly back into their exclusive club with warm handshakes and lighthearted jokes.
No one mentioned taxes.
Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, drew laughter from his fellow lawmakers and audience members when he welcomed the governor by his past title of Sen. Brownback. “We take the higher title,” he quipped.
Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado thanked Brownback for his “willingness to serve” and jested with him about his state’s dispute with Kansas over water rights. “You guys have had better lawyers than we have,” Gardner said.
Even Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who said he was troubled by Brownback’s record on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, had praise for him, saying he “has a lot in his background that suits him very well for this position.”
A day like this provides a respite for Brownback from the halls of the Kansas statehouse, where he has become a focal point of controversy and criticism as his time as governor approaches an early end.
The hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is the next step for Brownback as he moves away from his tumultuous governorship toward his new role as the U.S. ambassador at large for religious liberty, a State Department post based in Washington.
President Donald Trump appointed Brownback in July. He will need approval by the committee and then 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.
The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, said Brownback has bipartisan support and should be “overwhelmingly confirmed.”
For Brownback, the hearing marks the opening of a new chapter in his public life. And on Wednesday he seemed ready to move on.
He said he’s been reading State Department reports on religious persecution to get up to speed.
“I think this issue is just so critical,” Brownback told the committee. “It’s foundational to our Constitution.”
If confirmed, Brownback told committee members, “I look forward to working with a number of you on specific international religious freedom issues, and Lord knows there’s enough of them around the world.”
A devout Catholic, Brownback cited the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar as an example of a threat to religious freedom abroad.
He said the U.S. needs to engage fully on the topic of international religious freedom to send the message that “this is a fundamental right that you have, to do with your own soul what you choose. ... This is a right we will stand up and defend, whatever you believe, or don’t believe at all. We will stand for you.”
Brownback still has a passion for Kansas, said Kelly Arnold, the state chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. “But I think he is looking forward to that new opportunity.”
The governor is just a few months removed from a legislative session during which the GOP-dominated Kansas Legislature rolled back his signature tax cut policy — the central component of his grand Kansas experiment in supply-side government and economics.
After the Legislature rescinded his tax cuts, Brownback has struggled with other controversies.
And two days before his confirmation hearing, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that a school finance bill Brownback signed into law was unconstitutional, adding another chapter in the governor’s legacy of sparring with the state’s high court.
He also has faced questions in recent weeks on whether he forced Antonio Soave, his former commerce secretary, to leave his job. Soave’s attorneys said in court documents that Soave resigned in June after significant pressure from the governor’s office to step down that resulted from a legal fight between Soave and a business partner.
Brownback has denied forcing Soave to quit.
No one asked him about any of those homegrown problems on Wednesday, when he returned to the Congress where he served for 15 years before becoming governor.
Sporting a bright purple tie, Brownback sat at a long table between former Sen. Frank Wolf of Virginia, whose legislation created the ambassadorship he’s nominated to fill, and Michele Jeanne Sison, Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Haiti. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whom Brownback had endorsed for president in 2016, presided over the hearing.
Rubio praised Brownback as “a longtime champion of religious freedom globally.”
“He will be an outstanding ambassador for us,” Wolf said.
Kaine, who grew up in Kansas City, asked Brownback the toughest questions of the hearing. He pressed the governor to explain why he signed an executive order that rescinded a protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender state workers put into place by one of his predecessors, Kathleen Sebelius. Her order had said state workers couldn’t be discriminated against, fired or harassed because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“Are you aware there are countries around the world where you can be imprisoned and even executed if you are LGBT?” Kaine asked Brownback. He said the justification for such persecution often is religious.
Brownback stood by his 2015 executive order. “I believe these sort of issues should be passed by the legislative branch,” he said.
“Is there any circumstance,” Kaine persisted, “under which criminalizing, imprisoning or executing people based on their LGBT status could be deemed acceptable because somebody asserts they are religiously motivated in doing so?”
Brownback replied that he didn’t know what such a circumstance would be. “But I would continue the policies of the previous administration in working on these issues,” he said.
“I really would expect an unequivocal answer on that, but my time is up,” Kaine said.
After the hearing, Tom Witt, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, said he didn’t think Brownback should be confirmed.
“We know Sam Brownback uses so-called religious freedom as a weapon to discriminate against people he doesn’t like,” Witt said. “We think he should be kept right here in Kansas.”
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, although he doesn’t need them.
Still, Brownback pledged Wednesday to work closely with members of both parties.
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.”
Back in Kansas, the governor “has been drawing so much fire for so long, he’s just a target,” said state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a conservative Leavenworth Republican.
In the ambassador job, Fitzgerald said, “I don’t think he’ll have as many enemies.”