Oklahoma’s Senator James Lankford joined me this morning:
HH: Joined now by United States Senator James Lankford of the great state of Oklahoma. Happy New Year, Senator, great to have you.
JL: Hey, thanks to be with you as well. I’m calling in from very snowy Washington, D.C. right now.
HH: Yeah, I have fled to the West Coast for three months as is my wont, because thought I might be a Browns fans…
JL: Not a bad idea.
HH: …I have the soul of a Dolphins fan when it comes to cold. Before I go to the immigration discussion you’re on your way to have at the White House, I want to ask you, and thank you for retweeting my Washington Post column on the rules of the Senate. What is the status of your effort to get the confirmation mess resolved via an amicable change in the rules that is bipartisan?
JL: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do is to say let’s have a consistent rule for how we’re going to handle nominations. We’ve got to do over a thousand nominations. If they continue to roll like they’re rolling at this point where Democrats just ask for 30 hours for every person, which they can do by the rules, if they continue to do that, it takes 11 years for the president just to get his staff. It was never designed to be something that would take this long. It was designed to be if there’s a problem nominee, you can ask for additional time to get additional time on it. Now, they’re using it for almost every one of them. So I’m trying to work through the process. In 2013, Harry Reid was frustrated on what some Republicans were doing, actually a third of what Democrats are doing now. But he was frustrated with it, and he put a proposal, Democrats and Republicans both agreed on it. It was a way to be able to limit times to two hours, eight hours or 30 hours for nominees. I have brought that same thing up again, and said let’s just do that and make it permanent for here, for always. And if it was fair for Democrats in 2013, it should be fair for Republicans and Democrats from here on out. We had a hearing on it at the end of December, which went very well. Now, we’re starting to be able to have the process of actually talking it through face to face. And my hope is that we can get this done in the next month. If we can’t, we’re in a logjam that we’re going to have to resolve through a nuclear option. But we’ve got to be able to fix this issue of why can’t the Senate debate and work on anything because we’re stuck on nominations? And the President can’t get his staff, and we can’t do legislation.
HH: So James Lankford, if they do not agree, you expect the Reid Rule to be employed and a new rule to be forced through on a simple majority vote?
JL: I do, actually. I think that’s what happened in 2013 when Democrats got frustrated with it and said okay, we’ve just press it on. I think they did set the precedent to say if we get to that point, we can’t resolve it through the normal rules process that we’ve got to be resolved. We can’t just ignore it and pretend it’s there. What I’ve reminded senators of, the rules of the Senate are set by the senators in the Senate. So if the rules of the Senate are not working, it’s our own responsibility to be able to fix it.
HH: And my two specific concerns, Richard Grenell to Germany, Justice Stras to the 8th Circuit, will they be acted on soon?
JL: You know what? I don’t know the exact order. I know we’ve got four additional judges that we’re working on next week, and I don’t know the exact order of how they’re going to come out. But yes, the circuit court judges have been the priority for Mitch McConnell, then after that would be the district court judges. But again, the President’s still got several hundred people that have got to get into the political staff as well that have got to go through the Senate. So all of them have got to be done, and you’ve got to do legislation at the same time. And the problem with the Senate is they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
HH: Well, let me flip back around, though…
JL: You can only do, you need one or the other.
HH: Let me flip back around to Rick Grenell. It’s an ambassador to Germany, the most important country in the world that’s a non-nuclear country. How can we not have an ambassador in Berlin?
JL: Yeah, line it up. There’s multiple that are out there. We just had Democrats block about a hundred different military officers from just getting a promotion at the end of December, and that was one that I thought was appalling, that again it goes down to just slowing down the Senate that we can’t get military promotions. We can’t get ambassadors in place. We can’t get judges in place, all of those things. So yes, sir, that is the exact problem that I’m trying to address, and to say this cannot be in the world that everybody in the world is waiting on us to do nominees for ambassadors, but we can’t get them done.
HH: All right, let’s go over to the meeting you’re going to have in the White House today. Seven senators are going to sit down with the President, the Vice President, and I’m sure General Kelly will be there as well to talk about an immigration unified front. What aspects of that are there in disagreements among Republicans, because first, we’ve got to get the Republicans to agree, and then we’ve got to negotiate with the Democrats.
JL: Yeah, it’s exactly the scope of it. That’s the problem. It’s been 20 years since there’s been an immigration law passed at all. And so there’s so many issues that have stacked up, whether it’s sanctuary cities and Kate’s Law, whether it’s issues about diversity lottery, whether it is visas, border security, obviously, how we’re going to handle the wall, how that’s going to be paid for, what we’re going to do on chain migration. If you allow individuals to be naturalized that are in the DACA program now, what does that mean for all their extended family, all of those issues? We’ve got to limit the scope of the number of things that we can do, and then try to be able to determine what is exactly our proposal. The President had laid down a marker. By the first week of March, we’ve got to have a legislative solution for the DACA kids, border security and the wall, chain migration, diversity visas. Those are the basic parameters that the President is laying down. We’re trying to actually work through the text of getting that. That’ll be the focus of the meeting today with the President. That’s the ongoing focus that’s been there for about four months now meeting with Democrats as well to find where we’ve got common ground, because this will have to be a 60 vote in the Senate to be able to get it done.
HH: Let me pause on that, Senator Lankford. It seems to me the most difficult issue here is border security, the construction of the wall, and that if that were broken out and put into reconciliation via an excise tax. A million people cross the border every day legally.
HH: If you put a buck a head on everyone headed south, and then use that money to build the wall, you’ve got a reconciliation, Parliamentarian-acceptable approach, because you’ve raised taxes to pay for spending. And that works as we saw with ANWR. You have a tax and a spend, and it fits in reconciliation. Why not put the wall into the reconciliation, and deal with everything else on which it seems to me there have got to be 60 vote solutions?
JL: Well, there are 60 votes for several things dealing with border security. Quite frankly, the authorization for the wall was done in 2006. We’re still operating on that same authorization. The President’s working on construction of wall right now. It’s the funding that’s the bigger issue. What you’ve just proposed is actually something the President has proposed as well, and that is to have a basic fee that’s attached for border crossings. And if you raise that fee and allow that fee to be flexible enough to be able to help pay for the border security, not just the wall, but additional personnel, additional technology, improvement of the speed, if anyone’s crossed the border from the land crossing from Mexico into the United States, do you know how long the process is? Additional technology could help that and would expedite that process as well. But all those things could be attached to a fee, and the President has proposed that same thing as well. And I think it’s a very reasonable proposal.
HH: See, I’ve crossed that border many, many times down to Tijuana. Our church partners with an orphanage down there, and I’ve gone over on foot, and I’ve gone over in the car. And a buck a head would bother no one, because they’re going mostly to do good work or do good business down there. And then I think it fits into reconciliation. And then it’s a 51 vote deal. And that’s what matters to me is being at 51 votes. Do you think there is a reconciliation solution here for that part which is the most controversial aspect?
JL: You know, I would tell you that makes sense to me, but it has to make sense to the Parliamentarian, and the Parliamentarian has to come out and say it’s more tax related than it’s policy related. And then it’s a total jump ball. The problem with reconciliation is you take the Parliamentarian from being a neutral official on the field dealing with parliamentary procedure and to actually put a jersey on. And if they like or don’t like a policy, they can just say this is more policy than it is tax and so I’m not going to allow it to go in. So that’s the issue. If we can resolve it in the normal 60 vote process, it is much better to do it, because when you get to reconciliation, you literally never know until the very last minute what the Parliamentarian is going to do, because if they don’t like a policy, they can just shut it down.
HH: All right, so that’s also a Reid Rule situation. But let’s go back to DACA. I think everyone wants those young Americans, non-Americans who came in illegally, not of their own will, to be allowed to stay if their nose is clean. They do not want MS-13 gang members to stay.
HH: So there has to be a vetting process and the details of that. But there’s also going to be a key question – when and if do they get to become citizens and vote. And that is going to be a stickler for some people, because if you enter the country illegally, one argument is you should never be able to vote unless you touchback first. What’s your position, Senator Lankford?
JL: So my position has been that those children that came in, that they should be held harmless in the process. They should be able to get in line like anyone else in the world to be able to go through the process that’s about a 10 to 15 year process to actually go through naturalization if you did that overseas coming into the United States. So put them in line. Don’t make them do a touchback, because literally they have nowhere to touchback to. They don’t even know their home country, because most of them came as very, very small children. Their parents are a very different deal for me. Their parents made the volitional decision. I think they should never have the opportunity to have citizenship. They broke the law. For me, personally, and I know not everyone’s at this same spot both in their faith and their perspective on it. For me, personally, the greatest thing you can have in the world other than salvation in Christ is American citizenship. And I don’t think you get that by starting with an illegal act. And those parents came in with an illegal act, and I think they should be banned permanently from having American citizenship. Now that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have ability to be able to stay and work, or to have some access to be able to work. But I don’t think American citizenship should be extended to those adults.
HH: Now in terms of vetting DACA kids, let us assume there are, I don’t know how many million are there, Senator Lankford, what do we think?
JL: For the DACA population, it’s about 650,000. If you deal with the total population that’s in that age bracket to come forward, it’s about 1.2 million people.
HH: Okay, how do we vet, because it used to be the draft boards sat on a county by county basis. It could work again. But you do still have to vet.
HH: You don’t want, there aren’t that many MS-13 people relative to these 650,000.
HH: But there are some. So how do we vet?
JL: Absolutely need to be able to vet. You’ve got to be able to go through criminal background checks. You’ve got to be able to evaluate were they in school, did they stay in school, are they employed if they’re of that age, are they in military service. So basically, are they being productive, active individual citizens here in the country? If they’re going to actually work towards naturalization, they need to show that they’ve got some productivity now and they’ve got an absolutely clean record. If they don’t have a clean record, then we wouldn’t extend that. What I’ve said to individuals is when we accept about a million people a year legally into the United States as new citizens, a million a year. We’re a very liberal country and very open on immigration regardless of what people tend to think on it. We really are very open worldwide on it. These are individuals that speak English, they’ve got a good record, we do a full criminal background check. Most of them grew up at their school doing the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag every day growing up in our schools. These are individuals if we’re going to target people worldwide to actually go through naturalization, these are individuals I think should be in line to be able to do that. But I do think they should be in line. They shouldn’t be able to jump the line on this. But I do think they should be in that line, but they’ve got to be able to show they’ve got a good citizenship record.
HH: And a last practical question, someone’s got to negotiate the details. It got off the rails in 2006. It got off the rails before that. Who is going to have the lead in the Senate for dealing with Dick Durbin, who I understand has got the lead for the Democrats?
JL: Yeah, Dick Durbin will be the lead person for the Democrats. Chuck Grassley, who’s the chairman of Judiciary, will have the lead, ultimately, in the Senate. There’s obviously several of us that are very engaged in different titles and sections of this bill to be able to work through it. But ultimately, it will work through the Judiciary Committee. And if Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell don’t sign off, it’s not going to actually move and to be able to go through the rest of the conference. So we’re meeting with the President, because obviously the President should have a major say. This has been a big issue for him. The reason we’re doing this bill right now is because the President has demanded it’s done and it’s done right now. He’s going to set the parameters on DACA. He’s going to set the parameters on the border fence and the priorities that he has on that rightfully so as president. We’re going to have to set our own priorities on it as well to be able to work through the House and Senate. And then we’ll get those resolved by the first week of March.
HH: Does the Senate take the lead and then send it to the House, Senator?
JL: You know what? The House is working on their own product. We’re be able to work through it, but I bet we’re not too far off. We’re trying to stay in as much communication as we can back and forth. But the hard part for the House will be if the Senate can get it passed with 60, the House is going to need to be able to take it up and take a serious look at it. But obviously, they’ve got their own decisions, and have got to be able to look at it on their own as well.
HH: Senator James Lankford, Happy New Year, thank you for joining me. And by the way, I don’t want Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, but he played one heck of a game in maybe the best Rose Bowl I’ve ever watched.
JL: Yeah, pretty remarkable except for the ending on the Rose Bowl, but it was a good game.
HH: Thank you, Senator.
End of interview.