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Editor’s Note: Train in vain … you didn’t stand by me

Sen. James Lankford gets stuck in the Senate subway

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., seen here in January walking in the Senate subway, got stuck on a train after the State of the Union.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., seen here in January walking in the Senate subway, got stuck on a train after the State of the Union. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As metaphors for Congress go these days, a stalled train is obvious, a bit too on the nose. 

And yet there it was, in the midnight hour, a Senate subway car on the Dirksen-Hart office buildings line, stalled in the tracks between the Capitol and Dirksen, after President Joe Biden had finished his State of the Union address Thursday night and as the post-SOTU rituals of backslapping and Statuary Hall hot takes were petering out. 

The fact that among the handful of folks trapped in the subway was Sen. James Lankford also felt clumsily on point, the sort of conceit that a fiction workshop would advise the writer to throw out, so as to not be so overt. 

The Oklahoma Republican spent months negotiating in good faith with a bipartisan group of his colleagues to craft legislation to overhaul the immigration system, the issue his GOP contemporaries proclaim metronomically is a crisis that needs to be addressed — and now.

Lankford delivered, then got shivved by his party’s presumptive nominee, former President Donald Trump, and all the other party leaders who quickly fell in line on both sides of the Capitol and killed it before it had a chance to move. 

“This is a very bad bill for his career … This is crazy. This is lunacy, this bill. And you know what it is? It’s a gift to Democrats,” Trump said on Dan Bongino’s radio show last month. 

Biden extolled the joint session of Congress to get the immigration bill moving again. “Get this bill done. We need to act now. And if my predecessor is watching, instead of playing politics and pressuring members of Congress to block the bill, join me in telling the Congress to pass it. We can do it together,” Biden said.

Responding to the speech, Lankford adopted what has evolved into the standard line for the GOP: that they need legislation to fix the immigration system, but the president has plenty of authority to fix things on his own and he is not exercising that authority. 

“So while the president was acting like, ‘I’m helpless. You’ve got to pass this bill or I can do nothing,’ that’s not true. He has a lot of things he could do right now to dramatically slow the flow at the border. But there are issues that we do need to pass a law on to be able to make it even better,” Lankford said in a video posted on his YouTube page

Back up a little and here is what he told reporters last month, after it was clear that his own conference was abandoning him on his painstakingly crafted bill: “I feel like the guy standing in the middle of a field in a thunderstorm holding up the metal stick.”

Now he’s the guy stuck in the train in the middle of the night. Cue The Clash and its classic “Train in Vain” song for the soundtrack. “You didn’t stand by me/No, not at all/You didn’t stand by me/No way.”

To his credit, Lankford added in his response to Biden’s address, “I’m going to keep working on the issue of trying to be able to fix the broken areas of our law.”

For the record, the train did eventually start moving again. Lankford moved on, as does the Senate, eventually, on most things. 

But whether Lankford, or any other serious lawmaker, will have the grit to walk out in the middle of the field with a metal stick in a thunderstorm after getting out of a stalled train is another thing — whether on immigration, aid to Ukraine, or even, dare to dream, passing an appropriations bill or two on time. 

Jason Dick is editor-in-chief of CQ Roll Call.

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