Government & Politics

Pressure on Brownback grows as his ambassador nomination goes back to square one

Kansas Gov. Brownback testifies before Senate confirmation hearing

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback appeared Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the nominee to be the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback appeared Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the nominee to be the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Gov. Sam Brownback faces mounting pressure to clarify whether he or Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer will be in charge when the Kansas Legislature gets back to work in early January — even if that means Brownback’s early resignation.

The pressure on Brownback intensified Friday when it became clear that the White House will have to renominate him as ambassador for international religious freedom.

The Legislature reconvenes Jan. 8, and the governor is expected to deliver the State of the State address and a budget proposal soon after.

House Majority Leader Don Hineman, a Dighton Republican, said difficult decisions must be made in the session ahead, especially on school funding, and lawmakers need to know who’s in charge.

“And I’m not going to second-guess for either Brownback or Colyer what the right decision might be, but I do urge the two of them together to provide some clarity for us. ... We need to know,” Hineman said.

A Brownback resignation is “one of the possibilities” for providing clarity, Hineman said, but he stressed that it’s up to Brownback and Colyer to decide what to do.

Neither Brownback’s office nor a Colyer spokesman immediately responded to a request for comment Friday.

Rep. J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican who chairs a committee on the transportation and public safety budget, said the prolonged transition could complicate the budget process.

“I think there are some of us who are sort of scratching our heads about who do we talk to about budget items,” Claeys said.

Claeys said the State of the State speech will clarify who’s in charge.

“If Sam Brownback is standing up there presenting his budget, his plan for the year — that’s the statement and that’s where we know the direction the state’s going to be going, if he, in fact, decides to lead,” Claeys said.

Brownback’s nomination is returning to the White House because of U.S. Senate Rule 31, which requires that senators agree unanimously to continue considering nominees as a year ends.

It wasn’t immediately clear which senator or senators objected to keeping Brownback’s nomination alive. Democrats have questioned his record on gay rights.

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said he was disappointed Brownback wasn’t confirmed in the current session.

“I will continue to work with my colleagues and the administration to advance his nomination early next year,” he said.

The White House expects a number of nominations to be returned at the end of the session on Jan 2. Many will be renominated with the understanding that they simply haven’t had their vote yet because of Democratic opposition.

Politico reported Friday that the Senate returned about 100 nominations to President Donald Trump, while agreeing to keep about 150 more.

The president in July nominated Brownback to be ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said “hopefully as soon as we can in January” when asked about Brownback’s nomination clearing the Senate.

As the confirmation process has moved forward at a slow pace, questions have arisen over who is actually exercising power in Topeka. Colyer has been preparing a budget proposal and also named a cabinet secretary in recent weeks.

Brownback has previously compared the transfer of power to a relay race — though he has also emphasized that he remains the state’s top executive officer.

“One governor at a time and I’m governor,” Brownback said Monday.

Rep. Leo Delperdang, a Wichita Republican, said he’s seen comments that Brownback needs to step aside for Colyer, but that he doesn’t know what he would do in the same position.

The confirmation process needs to be finished, he said.

“We need to get the guy confirmed and get things moving on and get Colyer in place to do his job,” Delperdang said.

Kansas Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said that if Brownback isn’t confirmed by the State of the State address, he should resign.

“I think he should pass the baton and let the incoming governor, who is now the lieutenant governor, deliver the State of the State message and be responsible for presenting the budge to the Legislature,” Hensley said.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican, said the governor, whoever it is, serves Kansas best by working with and not against the Legislature.

Clayton and other lawmakers this spring fought Brownback’s veto of a bill rolling back his signature 2012 income tax cuts. After multiple vetoes, lawmakers in June summoned enough votes to override him.

“As a legislator, I don’t much care who is on the second floor, as I know that I can work with a reasonable person or, as necessity dictated in the 2017 session, around him,” Clayton said.

In addition to legislation, Colyer’s political future is on the line.

Colyer intends to run for re-election and is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. But the longer he waits for Brownback’s departure, the smaller his head start as an incumbent governor.

Ed O’Malley, a entrepreneur running as a Republican for governor, said Friday on Twitter that leadership in the current situation would be Brownback resigning to let the state move on. He also said Colyer should call on the governor to either fully do his job or resign.

“Colyer playing the part of a junior-governor is confusing, not leadership,” O’Malley said.

Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University, said it’s not clear that Brownback has Colyer’s political interest in mind.

“I don’t think I would trust Brownback to have my back,” Smith said. “Unless there’s a plan here we don’t know about, it doesn’t look like Brownback’s main focus is positioning Colyer in a good situation because it just leaves it sort of muddled as far as who’s in charge.”