Johnson has been working on rewriting immigration policy since 2009, when he started behind-the-scenes conversations with other House members.
The improbable collection of liberals and conservatives broke the ice with jokes about how lame the Senate is, an ever-popular topic among members of the House.
For almost four years after that, the group would meet in secret, its ranks swelling to as many as 20 lawmakers, with nary a leak until Boehner accidentally disclosed its existence to the larger world when a video of his remarks at a conservative think tank was put online in January.
Toiling to avoid the tag of “amnesty,” the group has tentatively settled on a plan that would require illegal immigrants to appear in federal court and plead guilty to breaking U.S. immigration law.
Illegal immigrants would be required to complete this step before embarking on a conditional pathway to citizenship that would take at least a decade. In fact, illegal immigrants would essentially be granted legal status when a federal judge sentences them to “probation” for illegally crossing the border.
The House working group is poised to unveil its proposal in May, although the issue of guest workers has become an unexpected sticking point after Republicans balked at an agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, sources said.
‘Moral Compass of Our Conference’
Although Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, a relative newcomer to Congress and the secretive immigration group, has received much of the attention as the conservative face of the group, House lawmakers and aides say Johnson’s reputation both as a conservative and a war hero could prove more influential.
“Mr. Speaker, it’s no exaggeration when I say I believe that Sam Johnson is the moral compass of our conference,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor said on the House floor in February, marking the 40th anniversary of Johnson’s release as a prisoner of war.
Johnson’s Vietnam experience is the stuff of legend and he remains deeply affected by it. For example, he still refuses to eat rice.
Keith Self, a judge in Collin County, Texas, whom some Republicans consider a leading candidate to replace Johnson if he ever retires, recalled an outdoor political event where he was sitting next to Johnson on stage on a “bitterly cold” day.
The two hadn’t had a chance to say hello, so Self looked over to Johnson expecting a greeting. “And he says, in his Air Force colonel’s voice, ‘You are not supposed to shiver.’ It wasn’t, ‘Hello, Keith,’ it wasn’t — there was nothing. It was, ‘You are not supposed to shiver,’ and what he was telling me was, ‘You’re showing weakness,’” Self said.
POW Turned Key Salesman
Johnson’s status as a war hero also means he’s politically impervious at home. Though tea party activists in his district were shocked to learn that he was negotiating with Becerra and Gutierrez, it doesn’t mean they can do anything about it.
“I liken filing against Sam Johnson in a primary as serving roasted puppies at a PETA convention. It’s just, politically, the biggest violation of etiquette,” said Michael Openshaw, a conservative activist in Plano, Texas. Even so, “someone” did talk about mounting such a challenge in the last cycle, but Openshaw warned them “you cannot attack an M1 tank with a can opener.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.