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When President Barack Obama visited the House Republican Conference recently, few were surprised by which legislator GOP leaders chose to address the president first.
With the appearance of a James Joyce character and a voice like James Earl Jones, Rep. James Lankford carries himself with a quiet, dignified confidence that has rapidly vaulted him from an unrecruited candidate in an Oklahoma primary to the fourth-ranking member of House leadership.
The chairman of the Republican Policy Committee sits at the crux of an often-restive conference. One of two members of the historic sophomore class in leadership, he is able to seamlessly traverse the battle line between the leaders and the led. And he is already playing a key role in keeping the rank and file on board as the 113th Congress takes up difficult legislation.
“He’s sitting in leadership without taking any of the shots of being in leadership,” Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said. The California Republican said he sees great promise in Lankford.
“He’s at the table providing where the conference is at. He’s also going back to the conference and saying, ‘This is why we’re doing this, because we’ve been listening to you.’”
If Lankford is not a paragon of the Republican conference, leaders certainly have no problem holding him up as such. His calm demeanor provides a contrast in an institution renowned for its most blusterous firebrands. In fact, Lankford is frustratingly brief when asked about himself.
“I want to be attentive but not be judgmental of people,” Lankford said in an interview. “I want us to be known more for what we represent and what we stand for than the volume with which we say it.”
As Republican Policy Committee chairman, he said his role is not necessarily to think about the legislation that is on the floor right now but to look ahead to legislation that will be on the floor in the future. He held a session with senators on an immigration overhaul and said he plans to hold meetings on transportation, education and a range of other upcoming legislative issues.
“It’s not trying to force someone into a way of thinking, it’s providing an opportunity for us to think out loud together,” he said.
Around the leadership table, McCarthy evoked the old advertising campaign for a brokerage firm (“When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen”) when speaking about Lankford: “He’s a quiet guy, but when he speaks, everybody listens because he doesn’t speak just to say something, he has something to add to the discussion,” McCarthy said.
Rep. Steve Southerland II, R-Fla., recalled such an occasion at a recent meeting about the sequester. Lankford reminded the group that spending cuts are a win for Republicans but could quickly become a negative if the party overplays its hand.
“Don’t gloat. That was his point,” Southerland said. “You’ve got be to very sensitive. Be humble and even when you get something, recognize the ramifications that what we do here affects people, real people.”
The 45-year-old Lankford was first elected to the House in 2010, winning a safe GOP seat in an open-seat race against a former state legislator who was backed by the party establishment.
Lankford’s is a decidedly biblical humility, borne of a deep religious upbringing that culminated in a career of more than a decade as the director of the largest Baptist youth camp in the United States — Falls Creek in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma.
While his ultimate leadership ambitions remain unclear, his demeanor has earned him the respect of a broad swath of the conference and a loyal base, including Southerland, whom Lankford advised to run for leadership.
“He has become a guy that I confide in and seek counsel from because he’s a wise man,” Southerland said. “He tries to do no harm. He is an upright man. He tries to be respectful yet assertive. And scripture is the code by which he conducts his life.”
That was the tenor with which he addressed the president recently, as Lankford told Obama the Old Testament story of Isaiah’s prophecy about King Hezekiah. He had saved Jerusalem for his lifetime but set it up for destruction later, Lankford said, tying the story into a plea to balance the budget.
It was not the first time Lankford spoke with Obama and not even the first time he addressed him in terms of faith. On Inauguration Day in January, Lankford briefly met Obama in Statuary Hall during the inaugural luncheon.
“I reminded him that there are many people in my district who pray for the president — including me,” Lankford said. “I want him to know that there is a philosophical divide, but there is a human element to this as well.”
The president responded: “I believe in the power of prayer.”