Home » Why James Lankford thinks he can secure the border, aid Ukraine, and win Democratic votes

Why James Lankford thinks he can secure the border, aid Ukraine, and win Democratic votes

What happens when the highest priorities of American foreign policy collide with the most complicated politics of Washington?

Well, that’s the story of the biggest legislative negotiation of the year: the $106 billion emergency supplemental bill.

Back in October, Joe Biden was looking at a simple, seemingly clever, deal: tie aid to Ukraine and aid to Israel together.

The Republicans who opposed aid to Ukraine all supported aid to Israel so they would hold their noses and vote for the whole package.

The Democrats who opposed aid to Israel all supported aid to Ukraine so they would do the same.

(As a side note: everyone seems OK with the third big chunk of foreign aid in the supplemental: money to advance US interests in the Indo-Pacific.)

But then Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, countered Biden’s opening move: They united around the idea of requiring changes to border security policy to unlock any of this foreign aid.

So now, three of the most contentious issues in American politics are locked together in a kind of legislative Mexican standoff.

The man at the center of defusing this situation is Sen. James Lankford, a Baptist preacher from Oklahoma who is the lead Republican negotiating a piece of legislation that gives every congressional faction a reason to hate it.

Bernie Sanders is leading a revolt on the left to oppose aid to Israel.

Lankford estimates that there are about ten Republicans who won’t support aid to Ukraine no matter what.

And then there’s the border security compromise he’s trying to reach with a group of Democrats led by Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

A group of Senate Democrats who are traditionally leaders on immigration reform have been vocally opposed to the direction of the Lankford-Murphy talks.

A group of Senate Republicans are aligned with their House colleagues and say they might not support border security changes short of the highly restrictionist legislation known as HR 2.

At the end of a tumultuous week when it seemed reasonable to predict legislative failure, Lankford picked up a glass of iced skim milk — yes, iced skim milk — and led Deep Dive host and Playbook co-author Ryan Lizza through the reasons why he’s far more optimistic than anyone else in Washington.

In their conversation, he simultaneously scolded the press for declaring the talks dead, criticized House GOP leaders for demanding too much and even had some positive things to say about Joe Biden’s commitment to border enforcement.

For all the doubters, including those who wonder how the fate of American foreign policy is suddenly in the hands of someone who has never negotiated a big bipartisan deal, he has a simple message: Failure is not an option.


December 2023