Government & Politics

Democrats will delay Brownback vote over gay rights record

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback appeared Oct. 4 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the nominee to be the Trump administration’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback appeared Oct. 4 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the nominee to be the Trump administration’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. AP

Senate Democrats will delay the confirmation of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback as ambassador for religious liberty because of his record on gay rights.

Democrats plan to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take extra procedural steps on the Brownback nomination in order to get him confirmed, a Democratic aide told The Kansas City Star.

Senate Democrats, though, will have trouble blocking a final confirmation vote. Under current rules, executive appointees such as Brownback only need 51 votes to overcome additional hurdles for confirmation. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

At a hearing before the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month, Brownback faced tough questioning from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who pressed the governor to explain why he signed an executive order in 2015 that rescinded a protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender state workers.

The protection had been put into place by one of Brownback’s predecessors, Kathleen Sebelius, to shield state workers from being discriminated against, fired or harassed because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Brownback defended his executive order at the hearing. “I believe these sort of issues should be passed by the legislative branch,” he said. The legislature has not acted.

In Washington, Senate Democrats can slow the confirmation process — and possibly use the time to mobilize more opposition to the appointment. The strategy will also force McConnell to burn valuable floor time in order to get Brownback’s nomination approved.

A spokesman for McConnell couldn’t say when Brownback’s nomination might come up for floor votes.

“If (Democrats) delay, it will take longer,” said the spokesman, Don Stewart, in an email. “I don’t have any predictions for you yet.”

Any delay of Brownback’s departure from Kansas past the end of this year could cause turmoil in the Topeka, Kansas’ capital. The state legislature is scheduled to convene for its next session in early January, and the governor must submit a budget proposal.

The situation is awkward for Kansas Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, who is preparing to transition into his new role as governor. Colyer has been waiting since President Donald Trump announced Brownback’s nomination, but has declined to say what policies he would pursue as governor.

Colyer’s staff previously has indicated he anticipates being governor by January and expects to reveal an agenda at that time. In early October, a Colyer spokeswoman said the lieutenant governor wouldn’t be making any policy announcements until “he is officially in office and gives the State of the State address in January.”

Susan Wagle, president of the Kansas Senate and a Republican, downplayed the possibility of disruption if Brownback’s confirmation is delayed.

“At this point in time, I am not anticipating any significant changes when we transition from the Brownback administration to the Colyer administration,” Wagle said.

“It doesn’t really help to speculate,” said Kara Fullmer, a Colyer spokeswoman. “Timing on the confirmation vote is a matter for the Senate to decide. Lt. Gov. Colyer is prepared to take the helm in Kansas whenever Gov. Brownback is confirmed.”

Brownback did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Trump nominated Brownback as U.S. ambassador at large for religious liberty, a State Department post based in Washington.

At the confirmation hearing, Kaine asked whether there was any circumstance “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.

The exchange between Kaine and Brownback was cited by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, in a letter sent to committee members after the hearing, urging them to vote against the Kansas governor’s confirmation. The group slammed Brownback as a “staunch anti-LGBTQ politician.”

“Given Gov. Brownback’s anti-LGBTQ record, it is deeply worrying that he could use this position to promote the harmful idea that individuals holding certain religious views should somehow be permitted be discriminate against LGBTQ people or other minorities,” said HRC Government Affairs Director David Stacy in a statement.

“This is particularly concerning,” Stacy said, “because LGBTQ people often face persecution in the same countries where religious minorities face persecution. Gov. Brownback must not be allowed to use this position to reverse the State Department’s longstanding policies, reiterated by Secretary of State (Rex) Tillerson earlier this year, to support ‘the fundamental freedoms of LGBTQ persons to live with dignity and freedom.’”

Brownback’s nomination ended up narrowly passing the committee in an 11-10 party-line vote. Not a single Democrat voted for him, even senators who had served alongside Brownback when he was in Congress.

Tom Witt, director of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, said Brownback should not be confirmed because he has been willing to use “religion as a weapon against people he doesn’t like.”

He said his organization welcomes Democratic senators’ opposition to Brownback’s confirmation.

“There should be opposition to his confirmation based on his track record here in Kansas,” he said. “We hope his confirmation vote fails.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise