HH: Joined now by one of our favorite senators, James Lankford from the great state of Oklahoma. Senator, good morning, thanks for being here early with me.
JL: Good morning. Glad to be able to be with you.
HH: Yesterday, I’ve got a lot to cover with you, but I want to start with the Lankford proposal to reform the rules of the Senate so that we do not have the four corners defense slowing the ball down on nominations. Senator Cornyn, the whip, said to me yesterday it appears that we are approaching the nuclear option, because the very reasonable Lankford proposal is not getting Democratic support. Would you update us on it?
JL: Yeah, so far, it has not gained Democratic support. It’s gained a lot of Democratic conversation, but not actual support. And there’s a big difference between the two. And so what I’m trying to push is to say hey, this is something that needs to be resolved. This is exceptionally reasonable. This is something that was true for Democrats when they were in majorities. It should be true for everyone when they’re in majority. That is a simple way of saying we move nominations with two hours of debate on individuals that are district court, eight hours of debate on everyone else except for cabinet, Supreme Court and circuit court, 30 hours. That gives us plenty of time. Remember, these are folks that have already gone through committee, already been approved. Now since Harry Reid changed the rules with the nuclear option, it only takes 51 votes. Everything on the floor time is just slowing it down rather than actually having real debate. And so I’m continuing to work through it.
HH: I know you’re working on it, but the realist in you, we’re going to have to use the nuclear option, the Reid Rule, to change the rules of the Senate with a simple majority, are we not?
JL: So if we can’t get it changed in the right way, yes, we will. And the key thing that I’m focused on right now is let’s bring it to the floor, let’s actually put it on the floor, put it on a vote, ask Democrats to be able to vote against what they voted for when they were in majority. And hopefully, a lot of them cooler heads will prevail when it actually gets a floor vote. There’s a big difference sometimes with the big talk and actually coming to a vote. So hopefully when we get to a vote, it’ll actually be done with everyone showing some unanimity in this. But if not, then we’ve got to move on.
HH: Do you have a date in mind for when that floor vote occurs?
JL: No, that will be set by the Leader. So my push is to try to get everything ready so when Leader McConnell actually says today’s the day for the vote, it’s all ready to go at that point.
HH: Because it does seem to me we’ve got to pick up the pace. This administration has got to get its people like Rick Grenell and Justice Stras and others into the jobs for which they have been cleared by the committees which they’ve appeared before, and we can’t wait around much longer. Now let me turn, Senator Lankford, I want to remind people of your background – Baptist preacher, ran the largest children’s and young adult summer camp in the United States. I’m sure you had every shade of the Kingdom come through that camp, did you not?
JL: (laughing) We did from everywhere, every color, every background.
HH: And so on immigration, you are one of the Republicans who really do care about the Dreamers. Not only have you spent your life working with young people, you’ve spent your life working with them with young people of every variety and from every background. Are we going to somehow get back to this cohort of kids and get them regularized, but do so in a way that does not send a message to the parents of South and Central America that it’s okay to risk your child’s life trying to get them into the United States in a sort of winner-take-all, Ollie Ollie in free dangerous method?
JL: Right. Yes, we will, and you’re right on my background. This is a passion for people. In fact, I ran into a pastor friend of mine the other day that said you know, for those of us in the church, we don’t care where someone came from. We understand that person is loved by God, and we’re going to do whatever we can to be able to serve people. That’s the compassionate part of who we are. But in government, we also have a responsibility to honor law, that law equally applies to everyone. And where there’s a gap in this, we have to fix it in law rather than just turning and look the other way. So it’s exceptionally important that we deal with it. One of the frustrations that I’ve had is that several of my Democratic colleagues again want to freely talk about the DACA solutions, but don’t want to deal with the border security part of it. This is not irrelevant. If we do a DACA fix of any type at this point, it will, as you said, encourage people to come from Central America and other places, make a very dangerous journey, and assume we’ll just do this again in another five or ten years. We have to be able to fix the border security. This was the reason these individuals ended up here in the past. If we do a vote on it to be able to deal with those children, then we’re going to have the same issue all over again. So it’s not unreasonable for any nation to say that they should have a secure border. But it’s certainly not unreasonable for us in this situation we’re in right now.
HH: Now when you do talk to your colleagues, do you bring up the fact that there were several people found dead in a truck in Wal-Mart this past July, eight people in a tractor trailer parked in San Antonio, including several dozen others who were deeply injured. They were being trafficked over the border. Do they not understand we’ve got to stop the incentives to make, that put people in harm’s way? It’s actually anti-humanitarian to be against border security.
JL: It is not only that incident that happened in Texas at that Wal-Mart, but it’s also true in the desert that we find individuals that have died in the desert, individuals that are trafficked in persons, individuals that are moved by coyotes that are actually sexually trafficked into the country. It’s over and over again. Now again, the vast majority of individuals are not coming into this area to be trafficked and everything else. They’re coming in to find work and to reconnect with families. People don’t need to overgeneralize it, but it is factually true that there a tremendous number of people that are moving in the country that are being used and abused in the process, and we should not incentivize that.
HH: Now let’s move on to the issue du jour. Yesterday was Religious Liberty Day. You authored, along with good Dr. Russell Moore, who is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention of Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an op-ed in Time Magazine about the real meaning of separation of church and state. I have tweeted it out to people. And you are celebrating today the establishment of a new division in HHS that will protect freedom of conscience. This is the issue of the hour for people of faith, which is to be left alone and to allow them the full right of free exercise guaranteed them in the 1st Amendment. But it’s being eroded, Senator Lankford. You’re working hard on stopping that, but it’s being eroded.
JL: Actually, I’m just trying to push back on people and say let’s think this through. We are a nation that celebrates our diversity. That diversity should also include people of faith, of various diversity as well, and to be able to live out their conscience. This didn’t used to be an issue even in America. There was a basic 1st Amendment protection that there was no established religion in America, but also people of faith could live their faith. That is the nature of the Free Exercise Clause. It’s not just that you’re allowed to have a faith and to practice it in your church, but that you’re allowed to have a faith and live your faith in your daily life. That’s exceptionally important as a protected freedom in America, and it’s part of our diverse nation to be able to allow people to be able to live the diversity of their faith. And this conversation about the separation of church of state that I hear so often, Russell Moore and I pushed back and said we realize the separation of church and state was designed to be able to protect the church from the state, and the state from the church, that there was this wall of separation, but it allowed them to be able to freely thrive, and that’s not just in their building, that’s in their daily life.
HH: Now Trinity Lutheran is a decision that came down last year, which is vitally important, and it was a 5-4 decision, and Justice Gorsuch cast the deciding vote. We have now before us Masterpiece Cakeshop Limited Vs. Colorado Human Rights Commission involving the baker, Jack Phillips, who is a very Christian man. He doesn’t put alcohol in cakes. He’s refused for years to bake Halloween cakes. His cakes are his art, and he does not want to bake a cake celebrating a same sex wedding. And now the Court has to come up with a set of rules. How confident are you that those rules, Senator Lankford, will reflect the religious diversity of America?
JL: Boy, I’m hopeful, but not confident at this point, because it’s an exceptionally difficult thing that they’re trying to be able to draw a line through. And it’s often the Supreme Court when they start thinking about how they’re going to draw a line to protect. There’s a big challenge there of what that rule ends up to be, to be able to help do this. This is also not just an art issue, but this is also a contracting issue, because when you’re doing a custom cake, that is someone coming in and saying I want you to bake a certain type. This is not off the shelf. There was no argument that anyone could walk in and buy any product from any background of any perspective for something that was off the shelf. This was asking someone to contract to do something that he believed violated his faith, and didn’t want to engage in that. So there’s a whole set of issues there that they’re going to have to be able to work through the process on. One quick correction on it that I rarely do for you is actually the Trinity Lutheran case ended up being a 7-2 decision.
HH: Oh, you’re right. You’re right.
JL: It was a pretty overwhelming decision for that one.
HH: You’re right. They got, I think the Chief Justice got Justice Kagan and Justice Breyer to go along, and only Sotomayor and Ginsburg were in the minority.
JL: That’s correct.
HH: You’re absolutely right. Thank you for that.
JL: Yeah, that’s correct.
HH: Now what I am worried about, though, is that if it goes the wrong way on Masterpiece Cake, it’s not just Evangelicals and same sex weddings. Before long, provocateurs will be asking devout Muslim bakers to make cakes in the image of Allah, which of course is forbidden to them. They cannot do that. It is a provocateur’s delight if the Court goes the wrong way on rights of conscience, James Lankford. Is that why the HHS division matters so much to you, that we educate people on rights of conscience?
JL: It is absolutely correct there. That is the challenge, is I mean, anyone can say I can go in and compel you to be able to violate your faith. Then they can intimidate you away from your business. You’re actually challenging people I don’t like to do something so many times that they eventually quit their business and you drive them out of town just because I don’t like this person and I don’t want that type of person, whatever it is, in my area. I can just go in and be able to push them out of my community. That type of bullying behavior is allowed if you have a situation where you can compel someone to be able to do something that deliberately violates their faith and their practice. We should allow the diversity of both faith and individuals to be able to thrive in the nation, and it shouldn’t offend someone because someone has a different point of view or a different faith that lives next to them or works next to them.
HH: All right, Senator Lankford, I want to close by asking you a very easy question and a very complicated one. Are we going to get a short-term CR so we don’t have a, one of these show trial shutdowns that makes everyone crazy? And then the conversation about race in America did not have a good week. You and Senator Scott spent a lot of time trying to improve the tenor and tone of that conversation. So on the short-term, are we going to get a spending bill? And on the long-term, are we going to get back to how to talk about race with our friends?
JL: Yeah, we are going to get a CR in the short-term. It’ll be exceptionally frustrating again. This is one of those moments that Congress should have already done a budget with appropriations rather than short-term CR’s that drive us all crazy. And that’s something we’re all challenging leadership to be able to get to the table and get that negotiated. Long-term, you’re right, race in America is not a resolved issue. We’re not talking about 3/5ths of a man anymore. We’re not talking about separate water fountains and separate areas for restaurants. Thankfully, we as a nation have moved on past that. But we’re certainly not done with the issue of race. And one of the issues that Tim Scott and I have pushed on hard is one of the areas that we can have real breakthroughs in race is actually at our dinner tables, encouraging people to be able to invite a family of another race to their home for dinner for a meal so their kids sit down with kids of another race at the same table. And what I’ve tried to remind people of this week is one of the legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was his frequent statements of darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. And in our culture where there’s this constant push so if someone says something hateful, I’m going to ramp it up to the next level and say something even more hateful back to try to silence them, we’re losing the legacy of Dr. King saying if you want to overcome hate, you do it with love, not with greater hate. And if we’re going to engage as a nation and treat each other as brothers and sisters and our families, and our children are going to play together, it’s the adults right now that are going to set the example for the children in the next generation.
HH: So it sounds corny, but it is so effective. So what do you call this Sunday dinner initiative?
JL: Yeah, we call it Solution Sundays, and it’s simply a, Sundays are typically a slower day for most families and Americans, so we encourage them to take that slower day for lunch or dinner that night, or if you’re in the South, it would be supper, I guess, that you would gather with a family of another race just to be able to have someone over for dinner. And I’ve had people say that’s way too simplistic, and I typically will smile at them and say have you done it, because the real challenge is not that I know people or that I work with people, but that you’re actually developing friendships, and your kids see kids of another race at your dinner table in your home. One of the barriers that we still have left in separation is at our dinner table in the threshold of our homes. When we allow people into our homes and to be able to have that kind of interaction, we’re actually developing the relationships that I think we’re intended to have.
HH: It’s a very sophisticated approach, and I wish people would make it their New Year’s resolution. Senator Lankford, good to talk to you. Talk to you soon on MSNBC, I hope.
End of interview.