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?' ''
Cao, who at age 8 fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, first came to Louisiana as a Jesuit seminarian. He eventually left the priesthood and became a lawyer. His political activity increased after Hurricane Katrina, when he ran unsuccessfully for state representative as an independent. He was then recruited by the GOP to run for Congress.
In some ways, his victory was something of a fluke. Hurricane Gustav pushed back the election cycle last year, resulting in an early December contest that pitted Cao against Rep. William J. Jefferson, a nine-term incumbent who won reelection in 2006 despite widespread publicity about the FBI finding $90,000 in his freezer in 2005. With turnout much lower than in the presidential race a month earlier, Cao won in an upset.
Boehner (Ohio) immediately argued that Republicans would win if they cast themselves as reformers, as Cao had. But the lawmaker had little connection to the GOP establishment, which did little to help him win.
Cao arrived in Congress focused on getting more money for hospitals and other things in his district. While he generally has voted with the GOP, Cao, 42, has occasionally bucked his party, such as his backing of a Democratic-pushed resolution to condemn Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting "You lie" during Obama's speech on health care in September.
Nancy-Ann Deparle, director of the White House Office for Health Reform, spoke repeatedly to Cao over the last several months about backing the reform effort, but abortion remained a sticking point.
On the eve of Saturday's health-care vote, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) predicted that every member of his party would oppose it. But as the effort to limit abortion, organized by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), gained momentum, Cao became more likely to vote for the bill. In discussions with the administration, Cao said he had received a "commitment from President Obama that he and I will work together to address the critical health-care issues of Louisiana."
Cantor spent Saturday imploring Cao to vote no. Cantor's last chance was during the 15 minutes lawmakers were given to vote Saturday night.
The GOP's No. 2 leader sat down beside Cao on the Republican side of the chamber. As the two chatted, they kept looking upward at the tally of members and their votes displayed on the wall high above where the representatives sit.
Although neither man nor their staff members have said what the two discussed, it became clear that Cao would not vote until after the Democrats had reached the required 218 to pass the bill. But once they did and began cheering, Cao became one of the last five to cast his vote.
Cantor stood and walked away, while Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.) crossed the aisle to shake Cao's hand.
John Murray, a spokesman for Cantor, played down any tension, saying Cao has a "tough district."
Said Cao: "With the leadership, they respect my decision, and I respect theirs. At the end of the day, I had to make a decision of conscience based on the needs of the people in my district."