James Lankford could not resist.
It was the wee morning hours of Oct. 17, and the House had just passed a Senate proposal to reopen the government and raise the debt ceiling. Lankford, the Republican Policy Committee chairman and fifth-ranking member of House GOP leadership, was the only member of Speaker John Boehner's team to vote against the proposal — a decision that did not go unnoticed by his peers.
As the final vote tally was announced, Lankford walked toward the center-rear of the room, where a small clutch of House conservatives huddled in their usual spot. As he approached, Lankford's colleagues, all of whom had voted against the Senate bill, nudged one another.
Lankford, who carries himself with the soberness of a statesman, stopped several feet shy of the cluster. Then he broke into a wide grin. The group burst into laughter, and Lankford received a round of hearty slaps on the back from lawmakers who knew that the Oklahoman, despite his vote, was a loyal soldier to Boehner.
"I knew what he was trying to accomplish," Lankford said of Boehner shortly after the vote.
This ability to straddle two universes — the insurgent conservative movement and the managerial Republican establishment — explains how Lankford, a sophomore lawmaker with no previous political experience, ascended to the House leadership in only his second term. It also explains why some lawmakers and senior GOP aides whisper his name as a sleeper candidate to succeed Boehner one day as speaker of the House.
Lankford, in his authoritative baritone, dismisses such speculation. The 45-year-old lawmaker is content in his role as policy chairman, which entails steering the House GOP toward long-term strategic objectives and being Boehner's "eyes and ears" in the conference. That means moving lawmakers past the rhetorical skirmishes that consume Congress on a daily basis, and educating his "frustrated" colleagues on the importance of the big picture.
"Whereas the [majority] whip might deal with something that's happening in a week or two weeks, we're trying to deal with something that might happen in six or eight months," Lankford says.
It's a natural fit for the wonkish Lankford, a self-described pragmatist who obsesses over policy details but admits to being politically naive. When he sought out his chairmanship, Lankford says, he had to consult his fellow Oklahoman, Rep. Tom Cole, to guide him through the internal politics of Capitol Hill.
"What I love to do is the policy. The politics, I'm brand-new at," Lankford notes. "Lots of folks here are great at the politics. They see the long term, and they know the moves. They'll outmaneuver me all day long on the politics."
Lankford graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1994 with a master's degree in divinity and soon after accepted a position at the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, the nation's largest Christian youth camp. He was quickly promoted to camp director, and for the next 13 years he served as the administrator of a 400-acre facility that hosts more than 50,000 teenagers each summer.
Looking back, Lankford's experience corralling thousands of rambunctious teens turned out to be excellent preparation for his next career. "If you can handle that many juveniles at one time," one of Lankford's fellow freshman lawmakers told him in 2011, "you should be speaker of the House."
But Lankford said Congress was "never on the radar" during his years at Falls Creek. Though he sensed an "unsettling" feeling that God was preparing him for a major professional change, the ordained minister never considered a career in politics. Then, in the fall of 2009, Lankford read about then-Rep. Mary Fallin's decision to vacate her congressional seat and run for governor of Oklahoma. At that moment, he knew what God was "calling" him to do.
"I don't want to get mystical and crazy about it, but it was just very clear," Lankford recalls. "I can't explain it other than — I read that article and thought, "˜This is what I'm supposed to do.' "
Lankford won a seven-way GOP primary before easily defeating his Democratic opponent in the 2010 election. But he soon grew restless in Washington and wondered whether being a back-bench congressman was important enough to justify spending so much time away from his wife and daughters. That prompted him to seek the position of policy chairman in the 113th Congress, allowing him to get off the sidelines and into the game.
"While I'm here, I want it to count. I don't want to go home and tell my wife and my girls, "˜I was gone last week because I had to do a press release,' " Lankford said.
As policy chairman, Lankford has the responsibility he wanted. But has he gotten the results? "No," Lankford says quickly, shaking his head. "We still have a long way to go."
Lankford is currently consumed with advancing his legislation to remove the threat of government shutdown by extending current spending levels if Congress fails to pass a continuing resolution. The purpose, Lankford he said, is to wean lawmakers away from governing by CR and get them to focus on passing yearlong appropriations bills. He's lobbying members in hopes of an early-January vote.
Looking further down the line, Lankford mentions poverty, education, and energy as the policy areas that he'd like the conference to explore. He's also branching out to assist in repairing the optics surrounding his colleagues, reminding fellow Republicans that they can't win policy battles by "being a conference that's loud."
Beyond that, however, Lankford is mum. He won't discuss his future political aspirations, because he contends he doesn't have any. The GOP's long-term specialist is, at least for now, focused solely on the task at hand.