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    The GOP tapped him to negotiate a border bill, only to tear him apart

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    WASHINGTON – Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., walked into the Senate chamber Wednesday afternoon and cast a “yes” vote on a $118 billion piece of legislation he spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day crafting. He was one of only four Republicans to do so.

    It was the conclusion of a monthslong, bipartisan project to broker a massive border security and foreign aid deal that was derailed when former President Donald Trump – with an eye on his 2024 presidential campaign – began publicly slamming the bill before it was even released.

    By the time it was unveiled Sunday night, the writing was on the wall. It was rejected by Senate Republicans less than 48 hours later when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared there was “no real chance” it would become law. Even McConnell – who tapped Lankford to negotiate the deal – voted against it, and it died on the Senate floor.

    It was a stunning turnaround from just three months earlier when Republicans demanded Democrats agree to a conservative border policy in exchange for additional aid for Ukraine.

    During that time, Trump commanded sweeping victories in the Iowa and New Hampshire Republican presidential primaries, consolidating his control over the party. He made it clear he planned to run on immigration and came out against the deal, and many Republicans in both chambers quickly aligned behind his criticism.

    The sudden pivot put Lankford in the crosshairs, from the top of the party to the grassroots.

    His efforts as the lead GOP negotiator were called into question as Trump called the bill a “horrible, open borders betrayal of America” and House Speaker Mike Johnson pledged it was “dead on arrival.”

    A group of more than 170 Oklahoma Republicans voted to condemn him in an unsanctioned meeting last month, accusing him of “playing fast and loose with Democrats” to forge a deal. Conservative commentators are portraying him as an intentionally bad actor or as a “poor dupe.”

    “I had a popular commentator, four weeks ago that I talked to, that told me flat out… if you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you,” Lankford said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “By the way, they have been faithful to their promise.”

    And on Monday, Trump specifically targeted Lankford, telling “The Dan Bongino Show” he did not endorse the Oklahoma lawmaker in 2022, even though he did. “This is a very bad bill for his career,” he said. “This is lunacy, this bill.”

    Lankford snapped back, telling CNN: “His job right now is running for president… Obviously, a chaotic border is helpful to him.”

    Lankford isn’t the first Republican lawmaker to be burned after working across the aisle in recent months: A handful of conservative rebels ousted former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. last year as he worked with Democrats to dodge a government shutdown. McConnell also got heat from his caucus for supporting the border deal, though there’s little appetite for a similar coup in the Senate.

    The Senate GOP’s sudden shift has underscored the power Trump still holds over the party he has transformed since he won the presidency in 2016. And it is an unusual position for the senior senator from Oklahoma, who has for years been a steady conservative presence in the Senate.

    “I feel like the guy standing in the middle of a field in a thunderstorm holding up a metal stick,” he said last week. 

    He said he was surprised by his fellow conservatives’ reaction to the proposal that, at the time, they still hadn’t seen. Once unveiled, the reaction was swift – within the first day of its release, at least half of the Republicans in the Senate said they oppose it or could only support it with changes.

    “This is a really intense thing. It’s been divisive – that’s why we haven’t done anything in 30 years on this. Because it’s difficult to be able to do and it’s divisive.”

    ‘Checks a lot of Republican boxes’

    The wiry, red-headed senator – who before serving in Congress was a Baptist minister who led a youth camp – has a reputation as a level-headed lawmaker who is willing to work across the aisle. 

    Immigration policy became his specialization during his tenure in Congress, and McConnell last year selected him to represent the GOP in negotiations as the top-ranking Republican on the Homeland Security panel’s Government Operations and Border Management Subcommittee.

    So “I was the short straw when it came time to negotiate all this,” he told reporters. The other lead negotiators were Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., as well as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and representatives from the White House.

    Experts say what the group delivered is one of the most conservative border policy proposals to emerge in decades, even with Democrats and independent voices at the table.

    The $118 billion package would have implemented massive changes to U.S. border policy, vastly expanding detention capacity and making it harder for people to qualify for humanitarian asylum, though the process would have been limited to six months and allowed migrants to work in the country while their claim is processed. 

    It also would have created a new mechanism to temporarily shut down the border if illegal crossings reached a certain threshold, forced the Biden administration to continue building a border wall, and funded anti-fentanyl enforcement. The bill also allotted new aid for Ukraine, Israel and other U.S. allies, a longstanding request of Biden. 

    Meanwhile, the package left out traditional Democratic demands in immigration bills, such as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country or expanded protections for asylum seekers. However, it would have allowed migrants to work in the U.S. while they await a decision on their case. It was slammed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and progressive members of Congress as merely an “enforcement” bill that could add to the chaos on the southern border.

    “Historically, looking at what both parties have wanted in a deal like this, this checks a lot of Republican boxes,” said Casey Burgat, director of the legislative affairs program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

    A decade ago, the deal Lankford brokered would likely have been considered a victory by the GOP base. But in the politics of 2024 – where bipartisanship is often seen as a weakness and polarization has reached new heights – the end was in sight as soon as Trump began publicly criticizing it.

    Many Republicans began arguing that the deal would have allowed thousands of migrants into the country per day and that Biden should close the border without Congress’ help, though that is legally murky.

    “We keep learning over and over that (Trump’s) sway with a broad swath of Republicans is almost absolute,” Burgat said. “When he speaks out on an issue there is a rush of people to support it.”

    Some Republicans stand by Lankford

    All but four of the Senate’s 49 Republicans voted on Wednesday to block the border deal they requested in November, effectively ending its chances of becoming law this year.

    As opposition to the bill solidified over the last week, Lankford’s allies in the Senate were still quick to defend his reputation, even if they acknowledged that his efforts were likely to fall flat. 

    “Sometimes I hurt for (Lankford) because I know he’s working as hard as he can,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., told USA TODAY last week.

    She said “there were stirrings” of concern before Trump weighed in, “so maybe he hit a vulnerable chord within the conference.” She argued that the proposal would codify some of Trump’s own policies, making it harder for Biden or other presidents to pull them back.

    “I think it would be a victory for Trump policies, but he’s obviously not buying what I’m selling, I guess,” she said last week. She ultimately voted against the proposal after getting “overwhelming feedback” from her constituents.

    Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. said Lankford “has strong conservative principles and convictions… he’s unflappable, he’s professional.”

    Asked whether the lawmaker has become a cautionary tale for Republicans who want to forge bipartisan deals, Cramer said that the phenomenon of Trump’s wrath derailing policy “is not anything new for all of us.”

    “It’s not an insignificant consideration for a political party trying to gain control in an election year to consider the desire of their presumptive nominee. (But) I don’t take a hiatus from policymaking because it’s inconvenient politically,” he said last week. “From that standpoint, it is kind of discouraging. But it’s also a reflection of just how narrowly divided this country is.”

    Even senators who have publicly slammed the bill have tried not to pin the blame on Lankford, or shifted it to McConnell: “He was between a rock and a hard place,” Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., said Monday, adding the package “won’t get anything done” and won’t get his vote.

    Still, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said that the flameout of the border deal won’t stop future Republicans from reaching for a bipartisan deal: “I don’t think it has any influence on the next one – for the players involved, maybe. But not for the institution.”

    Lankford may already be proving him right. He spent Monday on the television circuit, pitching Americans on the deal he had lost many sleepless nights over. That evening, he emerged from a two-hour meeting acknowledging that his peers would likely kill the bill. He’s not taking the criticism personally, but said he’s not eager to seek the spotlight again.

    And on Wednesday, as he headed to the Senate floor to watch his colleagues vote against his bill, Lankford said its demise reflects a problem that goes far beyond Capitol Hill.

    “This is where we are as a country, more than the country wants to admit,” he said. “We are a mirror… A lot of people want to solve things, but there are people on the left and the right that aren’t talking to each other anymore.”

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