Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) is in the middle of a political storm as he tries to pull off the Herculean task of passing the Senate’s bipartisan border package into law amid rising opposition.
Lankford and his fellow Senate negotiators have been taking heavy fire from opponents, largely within Lankford’s own party. But they’ve had limited power to fight off the attacks, with the specific text under wraps until this weekend, and concerns that releasing details could derail negotiations.
Now that the text of the bill is public, the leading GOP figure in talks has a tall task ahead. The Senate is expected to take an initial vote on President Biden’s emergency supplemental request — which contains the border deal, along with aid for Ukraine, Israel and other foreign policy priorities — this week, and Lankford will attempt to corral a majority of the GOP conference and keep the border bill from derailing prematurely.
“It’s impossible to herd all the cats,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “Everybody knows that he’s probably the most diligent, most honorable member of our conference, and we all have wished him well, but this is really hard and I think we’re finding that out.”
Topping the troubles for Lankford is the ire that former President Trump has turned toward the border deal. The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination — who carries enormous weight among Republicans — has urged Lankford’s colleagues to refuse to pass any border legislation.
Lankford is also facing resistance from House GOP leadership and has struggled to hide his frustration with what he insists are falsehoods and “internet rumors” being spread about his bill.
Chief among them is the claim — which has made its way through conservative circles — that the deal would allow 5,000 migrants into the country each day in some way, shape or form.
Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has said the package “would expressly allow as many as 150,000 illegal crossings each month” — a claim Lankford and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), another negotiator, has maintained is wholly incorrect.
When asked Friday at what point the lengthy delay in releasing the legislative text becomes a liability for negotiators, Lankford responded: “Oh, about four weeks ago.”
“It’s made a hard task harder because of the delay. … It’s been frustrating. This 5,000 piece has been the most misunderstood of all the areas to be able to discuss, and it’s sucked up the oxygen on how many other good things are in the bill,” Lankford said, referring to changes in asylum standards and other items. “All that gets sucked up with everybody saying, ‘This is going to let 5,000 people in.’ I’m like, ‘No, no – it doesn’t.’ It actually turns people around, not turning people in.”
“It’s literally a 180 of what everyone’s describing. There’s this perception that somebody’s standing at the border with a clicker counting 5,000 [migrants] in every day. Could not be any further from the truth,” he continued.
One Senate Republican who requested anonymity recently likened Lankford, who is known for his even-keeled demeanor, to a protective parent defending their child.
“He has bonded with this baby, so he’s really angry that people are calling it ugly,” the Senate GOP member said jokingly, adding that Lankford has numerous times made the point that he was drafted into this effort by leadership. “A couple of months ago, he might have put it up for adoption.”
At this point, the cards aren’t in Lankford’s favor.
Two Senate Republicans told The Hill that momentum within the conference is moving against the border bill and that it is unlikely it will receive the support of 25 Senate GOP members — half the conference — when Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) puts it on the floor next week.
That figure has been considered crucial to any chance that Johnson brings the bill up in the House in the coming weeks — an idea that is already unlikely, after the Speaker declared the bill is almost certainly “dead on arrival.”
“It’s a narrowing path. … I just don’t see that happening anymore,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said about winning 25 Senate Republicans to back the bill. “I think it’s going the other direction.”
In the face of that, Lankford has a tumultuous stretch ahead to sell the bill to his members, admitting that it’s a “difficult lift” as he attempts to dispel the perceived misconceptions of the bill.
“Catching up on truth will be part of the task,” he said.
The spotlight is an unfamiliar place for Lankford, who has largely been a behind-the-scenes player throughout his almost decadelong Senate tenure. Yet he is widely considered the right person for the job.
Republicans view him not only as the most knowledgeable member in the conference on border-related issues but also as a trustworthy negotiator.
But Lankford has suddenly been faced with never-before-seen political challenges, including back home. The Oklahoma GOP greenlighted a resolution censuring him for his negotiations with Democrats on the package even though some of his colleagues note that he has more than his share of conservative bona fides.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), a member of the conservative “Breakfast Club” in the upper chamber, added that if the GOP conference was sliced down the middle, Lankford would be on the more conservative half.
“He’s not a squish,” Cramer said with a laugh. “If you’re too joyful a conservative, some people confuse you for a liberal.”