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GOP Sen. Lankford on immigration deal: It's time to try

A key Republican in Senate immigration talks who supports the President's framework isn't quite sure yet if the proposal could pass the Senate -- but he says it's at least time to try.

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Ashley Killough
Tal Kopan (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — A key Republican in Senate immigration talks who supports the President's framework isn't quite sure yet if the proposal could pass the Senate -- but he says it's at least time to try.

Oklahoma's Sen. James Lankford said lawmakers who have spent months trying to negotiate a path forward on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which President Donald Trump decided to terminate in September, need to begin debating and voting on a starting point -- even if it's unclear they can get the 60 votes required in the Senate to advance legislation.

"I think it's best if we go find out," Lankford told CNN in an exclusive interview while on a three-day trip to Central America this weekend. "Quite frankly, there's still a lot of latitude even in that conversation."

While he's still waiting to see the finer points in a more detailed framework set to be released on Monday, Lankford said he would vote for it, as of now. It proposes giving 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children a pathway to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion for Trump's long-promised border wall along with increased enforcement authorities. The framework also ends family migration beyond spouses and minor children and abolishes the diversity visa lottery.

Lankford said he "hopes" the framework will put to bed concerns that the President could change his positions and policies at any moment -- something he acknowledges has been a concern for lawmakers of both parties.

"Obviously, he just put it on paper. This wasn't just a statement at a press conference offhand," Lankford said. "If he's putting it on paper, that means not only has he signed off on it, his team has signed off on it."

As for that team -- which has drawn criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for pulling the President away from what lawmakers thought were done deals -- Lankford defended the White House staff.

"With the President, quite frankly -- like what I think a lot of CEOs do -- they bring in varied opinions around them, and they listen to all of them and they make a decision," he said.

"And I think the frustration that I hear from a lot of people is everybody that I've talked to seems to have their favorite person on this team to negotiate with on immigration," he continued. "And everybody has picked one person as an enemy and one person as a friend. And everybody has their favorite."

As the March 5 deadline to find a solution on DACA before large numbers of protections begin expiring approaches, the level of engagement among senators has swelled, Lankford said. He believes the White House framework will help direct the conversation in a more focused way, arguing that a bill proposed in the House by conservative Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia -- which had support from the President -- "was not going to be the starting proposal in the Senate."

"So the question is: What is?" he said. "We've got to have a first straw man to work from, and we spent most of last week trying to establish what's the straw man."

Lankford has worked closely with other conservative senators, such as Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, David Perdue of Georgia, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, and previously negotiated with a bipartisan group led by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, before he was edged out of that group, which ultimately saw their plan rejected by the President earlier this month.

The new framework better reflects the views of conservatives but offers some moderate concessions to Democrats, including by offering a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, a bigger population than the 700,000 who were enrolled in the DACA program when it ended and more than were eligible for DACA alone. Still, the plan saw sharp pushback from Democrats, who said it makes too many cuts to legal migration on the backs of DACA recipients.

Lankford, though, suggested that some on the left are negotiating in bad faith, accusing them of attempting to "slow down" and "make negotiations confusing."

"I believe their hope is at the end, there will be some magical group that will come together and say we'll only do DACA and nothing else then because there's a time pressure on that," he said. "That's not going to happen."

Central American perspective

Lankford spent the weekend visiting Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and meeting with local officials there in an effort to discuss and learn more about a range of issues including immigration and trade.

The Trump administration has had a fraught relationship at times with countries to its south, and the President often used Mexico as a target during his campaign, even pledging that the country would pay for his border wall.

Lankford said he expected plenty of honest feedback from the countries about their concerns and also perceived opportunities, and that he hopes the President does not end the North American Free Trade Agreement altogether. He said that in Mexico, at least, no one brought up the President's recent "shithole countries" remarks.

What about NAFTA?

"NAFTA clearly came up" in Mexico, the senator said. "Mexico is interested in NAFTA. We're obviously their largest trading partner, and they want to continue to maintain that."

But Lankford said Mexico is "not sitting still" and is looking for new trading partners in case the pact disappears.

"I think NAFTA has proven to be a good trade agreement for us," Lankford said. "It's been more than 20 years since it's been renegotiated. There's obviously been a lot of changes in technology and intellectual property and other areas. And we do need to renegotiate it. It's time to do that after two decades. But we also need to be able to resolve it and keep it moving."

Lankford wouldn't weigh in on whether Trump's aggressive immigration enforcement efforts -- including ending protections for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who have been living and working in the US legally for close to two decades -- are harmful to Central America. But he did say the US should be focused on improving conditions and the economies in those countries as an integral part of its immigration policy, to eliminate some of the reasons people try to come into the US illegally.

"One of my questions is ... how are we measuring effectiveness?" Lankford said of US programs to build development in Central America. "We have to measure: Did crime go down in those areas? Did more small businesses start? We've got to get clear metrics and find ways so that we're spending American taxpayer dollars on things that actually reduce illegal immigration in the country, that actually helps us have better trading levels that helps us economically in the future."

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