When Mitch McConnell appointed James Lankford to lead bipartisan negotiations on immigration in the fall, it seemed a good bet to unite the fractious GOP: The Oklahoman is popular within the party, known as an even-keeled conservative.
Now Lankford is watching his deal with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) run into a systematic conservative assault led by Speaker Mike Johnson and former President Donald Trump. At least he’s keeping his sense of humor intact, quipping on Wednesday that whether he’s still well-liked is up for debate these days: “Used to be.”
It’s not just his policy proposals on the line, but his reputation among Republicans. Lankford himself is becoming a target, facing criticism from Republicans back in Oklahoma and public — if indirect — skepticism of his deal-making acumen from many conservatives whom he’s usually aligned with.
“It’s been exceptionally frustrating,” Lankford said on Wednesday, as he tries to privately assure senators that a bill whose text remains under wraps is actually quite conservative. “Everybody’s saying: ‘prove me wrong on this. Here’s this Internet rumor, prove this is wrong.’ The only way to do that is to get the text.”
With a shock of red hair and baritone twang, the Oklahoman has faced off with his party’s right flank before. In fact, he won his Senate seat over a candidate who had the support of Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Sarah Palin. Before that, he won his House seat in the tea party wave of 2010 — and prior to entering politics he ran a Baptist conference center and youth camp.
Lankford’s current position, however, is more politically painful than any he’s been in before.
Back in 2018, when he was involved in failed border talks that included the more progressive notion of giving some young immigrants a pathway to citizenship, Lankford withdrew after seeing a deal develop that he couldn’t support. This time, he’s standing firm in defense of a bipartisan deal — at odds with a growing number of his own colleagues.
His allies said they are frustrated with the way some corners of the party are treating Lankford.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Republicans are turning on him “because it’s more convenient politically than explaining the merits of it … that’s frustrating to me.” And Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Lankford “has not deserved the criticism.”
“He’s taking a lot of incoming. Occasionally you do that when you think you’re onto something,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).
The Republican frustration with the legislation may only grow. Lankford faced a new round of questions on Wednesday from fellow GOP senators about the details of a deal he is fighting to save, according to attendees of the party lunch. He was asked how the bill works and to clear up the notion — which Lankford and fellow negotiators call “misinformation” — that it greenlights 5,000 illegal border crossings a day.
The mood inside the room was “antsy,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said after the lunch that “this conversation is on a loop.”
“It’s the same thing over and over and over … what we keep hearing is ‘well, that’s not in the bill.’ Well, let’s see the bill,” Hawley added.
The deal’s writers say a border shutdown would kick in at 5,000 daily crossings under their agreement, and anyone without a valid asylum claim would be expelled. Far from allowing thousands into the country, they say it would do the precise opposite.
Yet the criticism of the bill’s handling of illegal crossings has taken firm root on the right, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to parry without ironclad bill text.
Which makes Lankford’s plight trickier by the hour. As he tried to soothe his party’s concerns, Trump was across town in Washington criticizing the bill for its border shutdown trigger and saying senators who support it are making a “terrible mistake.”
Trump asked pointedly: “Who is negotiating this bill?”
Lankford said that he has not spoken to Trump lately, in part because he knew he would be asked incessantly about that conversation by reporters if he did dial up the former president. He has spoken to Speaker Mike Johnson, though not recently.
Johnson has not been much kinder to the deal than Trump.
He slashed at the bill as “madness” on Wednesday in a rare floor speech. Lankford responded with trademark deadpan wit, joking about “when Abraham Lincoln said, ‘don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.’”
Within the Senate, Lankford’s used a personal touch to keep his work on track. He’s met with all 48 of his Republican colleagues one-on-one and speaks constantly in party meetings to counter attacks on his legislation. He also took to the Sunday show circuit over the weekend.
McConnell called Lankford’s work “extraordinary” and argued his legislation would produce an improvement over the status quo. That won’t be enough for many in the GOP, who are opposing the deal from all angles: Some don’t want Ukraine aid that would be attached, while others only want the hardline House-passed border bill.
“He got put in a bad situation,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) The former college football coach said Lankford’s negotiating position was like being “30 points down going into the fourth quarter.”
There is still no bill text, nor is there a guarantee that it will be released in time for the Senate to hold a vote before an impending recess. As Trump gains influence by the day in the GOP, many Republicans are so confident about a victory in the fall that they feel they can wait until he’s president to take action on the border.
That’s not how Lankford sees it.
“We’ll still have gaps and openness in the border a decade from now if we don’t resolve it now,” he said. “This kind of moment doesn’t come very often. When it comes, we have to have a longer look than 10 months from now.”
Katherine Tully-McManus and Gavin Bade contributed to this report.