Government & Politics

Brownback spends day in D.C., pushing Senate to confirm him as ambassador

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback spent much of Wednesday in Washington, seeking a Senate vote on his nomination as ambassador-at-large for religious liberty.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback spent much of Wednesday in Washington, seeking a Senate vote on his nomination as ambassador-at-large for religious liberty. AP

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback worked Capitol Hill on Wednesday in an effort to get his stalled nomination as ambassador for religious liberty moving through a recalcitrant Congress.

Brownback, who told reporters last week he was hoping for a vote on his confirmation by Christmas, huddled with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Brownback’s would-be sherpa, Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, said he was “very” confident a vote would soon be scheduled. Roberts added he planned to talk with his “good friend” Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.

“Gov. Brownback is the right man for this particular job, it’s been a passion of his for as long as I’ve known him and he will make an excellent ambassador,” said Roberts, who accompanied Brownback to his meeting with McConnell.

President Donald Trump in July nominated Brownback to serve as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, but the confirmation has stalled in the Senate, posing an awkward situation for the would-be former governor and the state. McConnell’s office had no update on his status and Democrats say they have not put any holds on Brownback’s confirmation.

Brownback said he couldn’t talk about the confirmation process, but said he was “excited” about serving, citing the situation in Burma, where Rohingya Muslims have been subject to mass slaughter and persecution.

The former senator, who appeared at the Capitol as Senate Republicans discussed their tax bill behind closed doors, did take a chance to hit back at Democratic critics who have pointed to his record on taxes as a cautionary tale.

Senate Democrats earlier this month held a hearing to draw national attention to the political and financial mess they say Brownback’s controversial experiment in supply-side tax cuts created in Kansas.

“They’re false statements on their part,” Brownback said. He said his tax cuts were aimed at creating more small businesses and private sector jobs.

“It did both those things,” he said. “We had record number of small businesses, we hit record private sector employment.”

Yet job growth lagged both the nation and neighboring states and Kansas was forced to delay highway projects, make cuts to higher education and other state services as it struggled to balance its books. Moderate Republican lawmakers joined with Democrats in the Kansas legislature earlier this year to override a Brownback veto and repeal the tax cuts.

Brownback, though, blamed “much bigger forces,” including a dip in oil and agriculture prices, for hurting revenue in the state, noting the plunges also happened to states that didn’t cut taxes, such as Oklahoma.

“If you actually looked at what we did, it actually worked for our target,” he said. “Our target wasn’t revenue, it was growth. And it did that.”

But back in Kansas, Senate Vice President Jeff Longbine, an Emporia Republican, described the Kansas tax cuts as wrecking the budget.

“Did we gain more private sector jobs? Yes,” Longbine said. “Were we coming out of a recession, that that activity may have happened any way? Yes. So it’s hard to gauge. Did we grow private sector jobs? Yes, we did. Was the tax cut the cause of it? I can’t answer that.”

In Washington, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee narrowly advanced Brownback’s nomination in October by a party-line 11-10 vote after concerns were raised about his record on gay rights.

And Brownback’s situation has led to a period of awkwardness in state government. Brownback told reporters earlier this month that Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer has taken the lead in preparing the governor’s budget proposal ahead of the 2018 session. The move sparked criticism from some lawmakers. The next day, Colyer also announced a key cabinet appointment despite Brownback still being governor in name.

Earlier this fall, Colyer had guessed he would be elevated to the governor’s role sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. That of course hasn’t happened.

But Brownback remained upbeat when he spoke about the confirmation last week.

“I think we’ve got a good prospect of getting up for a vote, and if I can get up for a vote, a good prospect of passing,” he said.

Brownback insisted in a written response to a number of questions posed by Democrats after the committee hearing that he’d continue U.S. efforts to protect the rights of persecuted groups and minorities, including lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals.

He said in his responses, provided to The Kansas City Star by his office, that he had several “productive conversations” with his fellow Kansan, Randy Berry, whom President Barack Obama appointed as the nation’s first special envoy for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. The State Department confirmed the two had spoken about U.S. policy.

“Violence or persecution in the name of religion against members of the LGBT community is wrong, as is persecution or violence based on gender, race, faith, age, heritage, national origin, or disability,” Brownback wrote in response to a question from Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, who asked whether Brownback believes that religious conviction allows individuals or governments to discriminate or deny rights to someone based on sexual orientation.

Cardin in his questioning noted that Brownback’s “religious objection” executive order issued after the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states “was so extreme, that Kansas is being monitored for its implementation of same sex marriage for the next three years.”

Lindsay Wise of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark