Johnson has been working on rewriting immigration policy since 2009, when he started behind-the-scenes conversations with other House members.
Texas Rep. Sam Johnson and Arizona Sen. John McCain have had a complicated relationship in Congress, despite the fact the Republicans were once cellmates in the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam war.
Johnson endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2000, calling his fellow war hero “too liberal.” He also worked tirelessly to defeat McCain’s “blanket amnesty” immigration bill in 2007, telling the San Antonio Express News, “hopefully this bill will never see the light of day again” when it fell in the Senate.
In the Gingrich years, he helped lead a group of right-wing rebels, founding the Conservative Action Team, an antecedent to the Republican Study Committee. And to this day, an “immigration” page on Johnson’s website begins with his longtime adage, “If you break the law, you should be deported.”
So it has baffled even the staunch conservative’s close allies that he is participating in bipartisan negotiations on an immigration fix with liberal Democratic Reps. Xavier Becerra of California and Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois.
To wit, Johnson was the secretive group’s founding Republican member.
In March 2009, Becerra approached Johnson, asking if he wanted to discuss the issue broadly. The two had become friends while serving on the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents, as well as on the Ways and Means Committee.
With the initial talks going well, the two discussed bringing in other members. But first, Johnson got the prodding of a rather influential Republican: then-Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.
“Boehner and I talked and he asked me to do it, and I said I would,” Johnson said when asked to explain his initial involvement.
That admission illustrates how the man who is now speaker had a significantly more important role in helping create the working group than has previously been disclosed.
Senate Jokes Break the Ice
With encouragement from leadership, Johnson began recruiting Republicans on the House floor, starting with a fellow conservative Texan, Rep. John Carter, who colleagues refer to as “Judge Carter” thanks to his years in the 1980s as a district court judge in Williamson County, Texas.
Carter is as conservative as Johnson and the two are quite close; they attend a Christian retreat together once a year.
Former Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Adam H. Putnam were also brought into the circle, and the Republicans met among themselves to discuss their negotiating strategy.
When the original Republicans and Democrats finally came face to face, “like any of these kind of meetings, the first few minutes are like a couple of dogs circling each other,” recalled Putnam, who is now serving as Florida’s agriculture commissioner and is a potential future gubernatorial candidate.