(CNSNews.com) – In the U.S. Senate Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence stepped in to break a partisan 49-49 tie on President Trump’s nomination of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for the post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Every Democrat, joined by independent Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, voted against Brownback’s nomination, while the Republicans lost their narrow advantage due to the absence of two senators.
The GOP controls 51 of the Senate’s 100 seats, but Sen. John McCain of Arizona is undergoing cancer treatment and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) is in Davos for the World Economic Forum.
So in his role as president of the Senate, Pence cast the tie-breaking vote first during a procedural vote to end debate on Brownback’s nomination, and then again in the final roll call vote, which passed 50-49.
It was the second time Pence has broken a tied nomination vote. On February 7 last year he did so to advance Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary by a 51-50 vote. On that occasion Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Me.) voted with the Democrats against Trump’s nominee.
After the vote, Brownback tweeted his thanks to Trump, Pence, “and all the Senators who supported my nomination. I’m looking forward to starting my new position as Ambassador and working hard for the American people and religious freedom around the world.”
In a tweet of his own, Pence said he was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote, describing Brownback as “a principled man of faith who will help the Trump Admin advance support for persecuted religious groups around the world.”
Trump first nominated Brownback as ambassador-at-large last July. The last person to hold the post, Rabbi David Saperstein, stepped down when President Obama left office last January.
Wednesday’s vote was a close shave for Brownback, who himself served in the Senate for 14 years until seven years ago. The Kansas governor has upset many Democrats with social conservative policies on abortion and LGBT issues, including a 2015 executive order that rescinded protections for LGBT state workers.
Leading the charge against him on the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the person who holds the ambassadorship must be committed to defending the religious freedom of all religious minorities around the world.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Brownback’s career has been defined by a lack of tolerance for those who do not share his own beliefs,” he said. “I fear he will only focus solely on protecting Christian minorities, while we must acknowledge publicly that people of all faiths are persecuted and demand equal representation.”
Menendez went on to cite other Brownback policy positions, including on LGBT issues, and said that during Brownback’s term in the Senate he had “often used religion to push policies that undermine the right of women to access healthcare, to control their own bodies and determine their own destinies.”
Daniel Darling, vice president for communications at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention said on his Twitter feed it was “sad the nomination of Governor Brownback is being politicized for this important position.”
Darling noted that the ERLC had “worked well” with the last person to hold the post, despite not seeing eye-to-eye on many issues at home.
“We disagreed with Rabbi Saperstein on many domestic issues but worked well with him on international religious freedom,” he said. “This is a bipartisan issue.”
Saperstein, who was the director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, was President Obama’s second nominee to the international religious freedom post, serving from Jan. 2015-Jan. 2017. Before that, Baptist pastor Suzan Johnson Cook held the position from Apr. 2011-Oct. 2013.
The top religious freedom post was vacant for almost half of Obama’s eight years in office (43 months out of 96), and religious freedom campaigners were troubled by how long it took him – 513 days after his inauguration – to first announce a nomination.
Trump nominated Brownback 186 days after taking office.
In his remarks opposing the confirmation Wednesday, Menendez did not elaborate on his stated concern that Brownback would “focus solely on protecting Christian minorities.”
But the Council on American-Islamic Relations has complained about Brownback actions such as his signing into law of a bill in 2012 designed to block any use of Islamic law (shari’a) in state courts or government agencies.
“Only under the Trump administration would someone so opposed to the constitutional rights of an American faith community be appointed to safeguarding international religious freedom,” CAIR government affairs director Robert McCaw said when Brownback was nominated.
As a senator, Brownback in 2005 called on then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resign unless the world body acted decisively to stop the carnage in Sudan’s Darfur region, where the victims (as well as the perpetrators) were Muslims.
His Senate career also saw Brownback advocate strongly for religious freedom and rights protection in non-Islamic countries, including China, Vietnam and North Korea. Victims of persecution in those countries include Christians, but also independent Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhists, Uighur Muslims and Falun Gong adherents.
Brownback was a key sponsor of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act which established both the ambassador-at-large post and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent statutory body.
USCIRF chairman Daniel Mark on Wednesday welcomed the confirmation, saying the commission was looking forward to working with Brownback “in advancing the U.S. government’s promotion of international religious freedom.”