Calmes: A Republican senator got the border deal the GOP said it wanted. Watch while his party betrays him

How did we get to this place where so many legislators don’t legislate, where lawmakers won’t make law? Why come to Washington if not to govern?

I witnessed the obstructionist evolution among Republicans in Congress in the post-Reagan years. Successful legislating requires compromise, and the more right-wing that Republicans — and their voters — have become, the less compromising they are.

Donald Trump only intensified the dynamic. As president, he talked a big game about bipartisan deals with Congress on gun limits, infrastructure, healthcare and immigration, and delivered on none, leaving the White House with enough grist for a new book: “The Art of No Deals.” As Time magazine reported early in his term about Trump’s negotiating style, “Time and again, the President has proven himself an unreliable partner.”

Alas, even out of office, Trump continues to work his black arts against deal-making, exploiting spineless Republicans’ fear of him and his supporters.

Trump’s immediate thumbs-down Monday on a bipartisan Senate border-security compromise (“horrendous,” he pronounced) was the apparent coup de grace for the first significant immigration bill in years. Trump’s toadies in the House preemptively declared the bill DOA. It may not get there; sycophantic senators are putting even Senate passage in doubt.

Forget those Republicans for now, however. Instead, let’s acknowledge a Republican profile in courage: Sen. James Lankford.

The formerly obscure Oklahoman has braved not-so-friendly fire from the right for months while he negotiated the immigration compromise with Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut, independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and advisors to President Biden, who blessed the final product. Now, with Republicans’ attacks redoubled, Lankford is standing his (high) ground — and standing up to Trump. (It helps, to be sure, that Lankford was elected to a second term in 2022 and doesn’t face his voters again until 2028.)

Lankford is a rarity in Congress, a Republican willing to work with Democrats to actually try to solve problems that Americans want solved, rather than endlessly campaign on them. The few such Republicans — Sen. Todd Young of Indiana is another — must get credit when it’s due. They certainly aren’t getting it from their party: The Oklahoma party censured Lankford for his efforts last month, before rescinding its action.

Constructive Republicans were the rule in Congress when I began covering the place, That was mostly before the advent of social media, right-wing cable and grievance-infused populism. Now, too many members of Congress count clicks and cable hits, not hard-won laws, as measures of success.

Senate Republicans “used to be divided between conservatives and moderates. Now it’s divided between invertebrates and vertebrates,” said Luke Albee, a longtime senior Senate aide who worked for two Democratic senators always looking for principled conservatives willing to cut deals. “Senators like Lankford … are in the vertebrate camp, though they are clearly on the endangered species list.”

Few Congress-watchers expected this leadership from Lankford, least of all on immigration, easily one of the nation’s most divisive issues, and one that Republicans hope will be Biden’s and other Democrats’ undoing in November.

Lankford, a lanky 55-year-old whose drink of choice is iced skim milk, has a bass voice befitting the Southern Baptist preacher he used to be, but otherwise projects a boyishness that calls to mind the ginger-haired Opie from early TV’s fictional Mayberry. He’s no RINO. Lankford checks all the boxes on Republicans’ litmus test: pro guns and fossil fuels, anti taxes, abortion and gay rights. On Jan. 6, 2021, he was among the 2020 election objectors before the rioting, but he ultimately voted to certify Biden’s election.

Lately, Lankford has been ubiquitous in the media, unflappably pushing back against what he calls Republican “falsehoods,” like the claim that the border compromise would permit 5,000 migrants into the country daily. He describes the provisions on asylum, detention, deportation, border-security funding and presidential authority to close borders as a once-unthinkable win for conservatives. The bill omits, just as Republicans prefer, Democrats’ past priorities: permanent legal status for DACA beneficiaries and a path to citizenship for longtime, law-abiding unauthorized immigrants.

But Lankford’s Republican colleagues are focused on politics, not policy, and he knows it. He characterized the thinking of many of them on CNN: “We’re in a presidential year, so let’s not help Biden in the process.”

His foes include the Senate’s usual knee-jerk naysayers, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah. Lee personifies the modern Republican Party’s disdain for bipartisan legislating: He arrived in Congress in 2011 as a tea party insurgent who had unseated a widely respected Republican. The incumbent’s sin? Compromising with Democrats on the hot issue of that time, healthcare.

Lee’s upset victory shook party incumbents and presaged the replacement of pragmatic Republicans with the uncompromising kind. Like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, J.D. Vance of Ohio. Now that ilk defines the party in Congress.

Which is why so many Republicans lie about a border-security bill that they initially demanded and why on Wednesday they’ll likely deprive the deal of the 60 Senate votes needed to proceed, taking the attached aid for Ukraine and Israel down with it.

If that’s not the death of governing, it’s something close. If only we could have more Lankfords, and fewer Lees.


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