A vote to make or break a career

The U.S. House narrowly passed landmark health care legislation Saturday night to expand coverage to tens of millions who lack it and place tough new restrictions on the insurance industry. The vote was 220-215.
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

When Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao won a stunning victory in a heavily Democratic district in New Orleans last December, the GOP was so thrilled that House Minority Leader John A. Boehner sent a memo to his colleagues headlined "The Future is Cao."

But on health care, Cao had for months considered bucking the party that embraced him, while the White House wooed his vote. And this weekend, as a group of Democrats gained momentum in an effort to limit abortion in the health-care reform bill, Cao, a staunch opponent of abortion, dialed up the White House. He said he might be able to offer his support if the abortion limits were included in the bill.

By Saturday afternoon, President Obama was on the phone trying to close the deal. Cao pressed Obama for more federal funds for his district, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina four years ago.

Cao said Obama didn't make him any guarantees. But the abortion amendment gave Cao, a former Jesuit seminarian, a way to stay true to his beliefs while trying to win a second term in a district that Obama won with 75 percent of the vote.

So on Saturday, Cao, the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, surprised Democrats and Republicans by becoming the only one of the 177 House Republicans to support the health-care bill.

"I felt last night's decision was the right decision for my district, even though it was not the popular decision for my party," Cao told CNN on Sunday.

The decision, he said, was a lifeline to the poor and uninsured in his district, rejecting the idea that it had anything to do with reelection hopes. Members of both parties privately said, however, that Cao's prospects are doomed unless a large number of Democrats in his district embrace him.

In a statement released by his office, Cao touted the abortion limits in the health bill, which had been insisted upon by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cao's office also quoted Gregory M. Aymond, archbishop of New Orleans, who said, "I am grateful to Congressman Cao for his courage and determination to defend life."

Democrats in Washington and New Orleans, noting how Cao has voted with Republicans on other issues, including opposition to the $787 billion economic stimulus package, said his record cannot be erased by his health-care vote. Democratic Party officials view Cao as one of the nation's most vulnerable Republicans .

"He votes along party lines more than for the district," said state Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat who hopes to unseat Cao next year.

Cao is well aware of his potentially short Washington career.

"I know that voting against the health-care bill will probably be the death of my political career," Cao told the Times-Picayune this year. But he added: "I have to live with myself, and I always reflect on the phrase of the New Testament, 'How does it profit a man's life to gain the world but to lose his soul?' ''

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