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Senators Angus King (I) and James Lankford (R) On Bipartisanship In D.C.

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Maine’s Senator Angus King (I) and Oklahoma’s Senator James Lankford (R) joined me this morning.  They are great friends despite their significant differences on issues.




HH: Now for something completely different. I ordinarily just talk politics and the differences between Democrats, Republicans and independents on this program. But today, I asked two good friends from opposite sides of the aisle to join me, Senator James Lankford of the great state of Oklahoma, Senator Angus King from the great state of Maine. Welcome to you both. Senator Lankford, welcome back. Senator King, welcome for the first time on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

AK: Hey, Hugh, nice to be with you, man.

JL: Great to be with you, Hugh, thanks.

HH: It’s great to have you both. A little background for our audience, Senator Lankford is under the age of 50. He’s got two kids. He grew up in Oklahoma, served in Congress for a couple of years in the House before he went to the Senate in 2015. He’s a graduate of the University of Texas, so he doesn’t know anything about football. Angus King is 73 years old, five kids. He went to Dartmouth, so he definitely doesn’t know anything about football, and UVA Law School. And Governor, Senator King, I know a little bit about you, because George Philip is my brother-in-law. So I know all the stuff you did when you were in high school, so I won’t bring that up. I will leave that on…

AK: Oh, that, yeah, that’s bad news. George is my Marine buddy, who is a Marine veteran and a neighbor. And he and I played high school football together.

HH: Yeah, so I’m not going to bring up the stuff I’ve heard about that. But would you begin, Senator Lankford? When did you two meet? And how did you meet? And how did you become friends?

JL: Well, I first came into the Senate three years ago, and actually, that’s the first time that Angus and I met. And we just struck up a conversation on different things on the floor, and just maintained a conversation. We now have regular conversations on a whole host of issues, starting with things like our family and our faith, and just how things are going back in state, and maintained that ongoing friendship.

HH: Now Senator King, when you spot this big, tall guy from Oklahoma, he’s not exactly a Mainer. How do you decide this is someone I’m going to connect with and become friends with?

AK: Well, I think the first place we actually met was at the prayer breakfast, which is my favorite hour of the week around here. Believe it or not, Hugh, it’s the only bipartisan event of the week where Republican senators, independents, can get together, talk, not have you know, a lot of press, staff and all the pressures of partisanship. And I think that’s where we first met. We share a Christian faith, and we’ve gotten into the habit of having dinner together pretty regularly. And you know, you find people that it just sort of clicks with.

HH: Now Senator Lankford, I don’t want to give away where and when you meet, but I would love to know about the prayer breakfast and how many people show up on a regular basis to it, because that’s actually going to encourage a lot of Americans that that goes on.

JL: You know, it is amazing to me how many people don’t think that Republicans and Democrats ever get together to do something as basic as pray together. It actually happens every Wednesday morning, and has since the 1950s in the Senate, is that Republicans and Democrats get together. It’s about 25 people that are senators, Republican and Democrat and independent. They get together just to be able to pray, talk about their own personal faith and their journey and their family, and then get back to it. We have kind of a running joke that it’s much harder to stab someone in the back when you pray together in the morning. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder.

AK: (laughing)

HH: (laughing) Yeah, it just…

AK: And…

HH: Go ahead, Senator.

AK: Well, Hugh, one of the best parts of it is that each week, a different senator is asked to speak, ostensibly about their faith. But it always ends up being autobiographical. And you learn about your colleagues in a way that you know, you don’t get from the website and the official biography about where they grew up, how they grew up, what their family situation was. And I think that’s, you know, it’s one of the most interesting and fun parts, because you always learn something you didn’t know.

HH: When that happens as well, obviously senators appear in front of the United States public on camera, and they’re talking about issues. They’re not talking about their lives. The complexity of the average senator’s life is going to be just like anyone listening right now. If they’re driving to work, there are going to be great days and terrible days. There are going to be wonderful children. And I’ve always had a rule. You’re only as happy as your least happy child. Does that hold in the Senate caucus as well?

JL: No, that absolutely holds. It’s amazing to me the conversations that’ll happen just that are personal conversations, how are our families doing, what’s happening, you know, health. All those same things are still there. And in a typical day for me, I’m in the office right now, and it’s 7:30 in the morning here. Typically, for instance, last night, I left here about 8:45 last night, went back, got some late dinner, and then did some reading and studying until about 11:30. So it’s not an atypical day. There’s a lot of research, a lot of studying, a lot of things that you get a chance to be able to work through. That has its own stresses and strains that are uniquely understood by the people that do it, just like it is for every other industry in every other group. There are unique stresses and strains in that, and that reaches out into personal relationships to be able to establish that.

HH: Now Senator King, one of your members, a great American, John McCain, is obviously desperately ill, and he’s gone home to Arizona, and hopefully he will rally there, but he may not. How does that impact you? Obviously, you’ve disagreed with him on politics probably 90% of the time over the course of your years in the Senate, but he is a friend, right?

AK: No, and actually, it’s, you know, I think we probably disagree 40% of the time. I’m on the Armed Services Committee with him, and one of the neat things about that committee is it’s almost entirely non-partisan. I mean, it’s divided on a partisan basis, but when we have a markup of the national defense bill, typically we’ll have two or three hundred amendments. They’ll be winnowed down to 25 or 30 votes. I think last year, we had zero party line votes in the committee. They were all over the place. I think this year, we may have had one. But I consider John McCain a great friend. I’ve traveled with him. Traveling with John McCain is like the Bataan Death March with Paul McCartney.

HH: (laughing)

AK: He never stops moving. We, you know, from 7 in the morning until Midnight, meetings, traveling all over the Middle East, and everybody recognized him wherever you go. Everybody wants to have their picture taken with him, you know. And other senators are reduced to being the guys who take the pictures of McCain and the citizens of Israel or Jordan or Turkey or wherever we are.

HH: Now you’ve both been there in the body for a few years. Is it getting harder or is it the same when it comes to the ability to talk not about politics, but about non-partisan issues? Is that, because it’s vanishing in the country, that ability is draining away in the country. Is it draining away in the Senate, Senator Lankford?

JL: Well, that’s tough for me to read just being here three years on it. I don’t have a longer perspective. It’s something that I work on intentionally to say we have to deal with humanity as well as political issues. It is a fascinating thing to me with some people that I talk to, say I don’t want you to develop friendships with people across the aisle, because then you’ll go soft on all the issues. And I’ve tried to tell people I can keep my core values and principles, but actually treat people like human beings at the same time. We will have disagreements on things. We can work through those to try to get some understanding. The goal of it is to instill, and again, it comes from my own faith, I believe every person is created in the image of God and has value and worth. I should be able to still treat them with dignity and respect, even when we disagree on something. And I don’t think that should be that radical of a concept.

AK: And Hugh, I think it’s important for people in the country to understand that the conflict and confrontation that they see in the news all the time isn’t the whole deal. Yes, it’s intensely partisan on big issues like the tax bill or immigration and those kinds of things. But there are a lot of things being worked on. I’m on a bipartisan, you know, 12/12 sponsorship on a banking reform bill. And a lot of us work together on a health care reform bill back in the summer. So it’s not, and then there’s all kinds of more minor stuff that goes on. So the idea that we’re at each other’s throats all the time and nobody talks to each other, and there’s absolute partisan breakdown on everything just isn’t so. I don’t want to understate it. It’s pretty bad on the larger issues, and I think James is right that I sometimes think that people don’t want us to get to know each other.

HH: Now Senator King, you’ve been at this for a dozen years when you were governor in ’95. And so, and Maine’s an interesting place. I know from George and Franny, and I’ve been there a number of times, but I know that you’ve got very distinct parties up there, very conservative people, very liberal people, and then you’ve got a bunch of centers in the middle – center-left, center-right. Have you noticed that politics is becoming more bitter in Maine as it might be throughout the rest of the country?

AK: Yeah, I think it has. I think it’s more polarized than it was when I ran for governor 25 years ago, and it’s hard to explain. I mean, we could spend the whole program talking about it. I think there a lot of people who feel left behind, who feel that they haven’t been listened to. There have been huge changes in the economy. I mean, we’ve lost these, many of our great paper mills that provided really good jobs in rural areas, and through no fault of the people that worked there. So there is this kind of split in the state. And Maine, like many states, I think, you know, has distinct regions. Southern Maine, around Portland, is very dynamic, probably the unemployment rate is 3% or less. Northern and Eastern Maine, which is more rural, is much tougher. And one of the great projects of people like myself for years and years has been how do we bring economic growth and vitality to these regions that have been hit so hard by the changes in the economy. It’s a real challenge.

HH: And Senator Lankford, I was down in Oklahoma at the Hobby Lobby complex, that massive, wonderful volcano of productivity. But I do get the sense that maybe people in Oklahoma feel divorced from coastal elites a little bit.

JL: Oh, no, yeah, there’s no question. And the running joke that coastal elites have about flyover country doesn’t bode well for those that live in the middle of America, and say actually, we represent some middle America values. And it is a unique thing to be able to hear people say you know, everybody in Oklahoma all thinks the same, it’s a red state, so everybody’s conservative. I always smile and say why don’t you come to Oklahoma and enjoy the incredible diversity of opinions and attitudes and outlooks that are also in Oklahoma. That’s just the nature of a state like ours with almost four million people, that there’s a lot of diversity of opinion in the state. And a lot of people still get their media from social media, and they get all kinds of different news and perspective, and sometimes it’s right, and sometimes it’s wrong. And I spend a lot of my time answering questions from people saying no, actually, that’s factually not true, and trying to be able to help fill in the gaps.

HH: Now let me ask you both to conclude this, I’m looking at a set of issues having to do with immigration. And I want the children of DACA largely to remain if they don’t have a criminal issue. I want greater border security. I want migration, chain migration to be altered so it makes more sense. But there are so many moving parts, it seems to me that this is a bill on which there ought to be an ability for Democrats and Republicans to come together and forget that. Agree or disagree, Senator King, let me start with you?

AK: I think I agree. I had dinner the other night with a very conservative House member from the central part of the country who said we’ve got to figure out this thing. And he stated it almost exactly as you just did. And to me, working out something for these kids who have, this is the only country they’ve ever known. At the same time, dealing with border security, it’s an obvious area for compromise, and I hope we’re going to be able to work it out over the next few days or weeks.

HH: Senator Lankford, you’ve been in the forefront of this. Are you an optimist that something emerges that is a bipartisan bill the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time?

JL: No, I am an optimist on that. This is something I’ve worked on for months, and Angus has as well. But Thom Tillis and I put out a bill called the Succeed Act to try to deal with the issue of DACA. These are individuals that grew up in our country, speak English, make great grades, engage in our schools. Many of them are now, have graduated high school, they have a job, but they live in this strange limbo that this is the only country they’ve ever known, but they’re not citizens of this country, because they came when they were 2 years old. So we’re trying to work that out, but I do agree you’ve got to deal with border security. You’ve got to deal with chain migration. There are some basic elements that have to go with it. And the problem is the House and Senate have not passed an immigration in 20 years. So we have a lot of pent up issues, and that every year makes it tougher, because every year, there’s another issue that gets added to it that should be something voted on this year. But it’s just one more in the stack of complexity. The more complex it gets, the harder it is to move it. But we can’t say this is hard, we’ll have to do it next year, because it’ll be even tougher next year. My goal is somewhere January, February time period, we finally have the agreement. I wish it could be in the next couple of days. There’s no way that we can get to an agreement. There have been several of us in a bipartisan way meeting for weeks and weeks on this trying to be able to find where the area of compromise is, how we limit the bill that it doesn’t become so big, but also don’t keep it so small that we ignore the obvious issues.

HH: Let me ask, close by asking you both, Thanksgiving was a rough dinner for some families. What’s your advice as Christmas dinner approaches and politics remains front and center, Angus King?

AK: Well, first, let me say I mentioned at the beginning George Philip was my Marine buddy. I didn’t want to imply that I was a Marine. I know well enough to not try to crash that particular party.

HH: So do I.

AK: But George is a buddy who, George is a buddy who is a Marine. I want to make that clear. I think that what we need, Hugh, is what I call eloquent listening. We need to listen to one another more instead of talking at one another more. And that goes for both sides, all sides of the political divide. I, you know, we have a crisis. We have a hurricane, we have an ice storm, we have a natural disaster, and people naturally come together and help out. We’ve got to try to remind each other how much we have in common rather than having the media and the, you know, whoever trying to divide us and exacerbate the differences. And that’s what I think. I come back to listening. I think that’s the key to the whole thing.

HH: Eloquent listening, last word to you, James Lankford.

JL: I do enjoy getting a chance to get together at Christmastime or Thanksgiving, because my family, like every family, doesn’t all think alike on everything. I have a deep love and respect for my family. We have the chance to have conversations, and I would encourage people to say there are a lot of areas of common ground, and don’t let the areas of the bumper sticker things that come out of social media and other things to be able to pigeonhole us and not getting the rest of the facts. It’s amazing that we have differences of opinion, and typically those are based on looking at different sets of ideas, and different ways to be able to approach the same solutions. Look at where we want to go, and we may disagree how to get there, but we can probably all agree on where we need to go. And for Heaven’s sakes, over Christmas, let’s enjoy the Christmastime and the joy and peace of what has happened in our own hearts and lives during that spillover into our families as well.

HH: Thank you, Senator Angus King, thank you Senator James Lankford. Come back early in the year, and we’ll talk about immigration in depth. And I appreciate it, and maybe we’ll make it a regular segment. It’s a great, great example for people who often are yelling at each other as opposed to eloquently listening. Thank you both.

End of interview.


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