Cao's vote is not without historical precedent: the same thing, more or
less, happened within Democratic ranks two years ago, and it happened
during a huge vote on the same issue--health care.
After the Democrats took power in 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
(D-CA) had two main items on her agenda: oppose funding of the Iraq war
(or try to add conditions to it), and pass an expansion of the State
Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)--both of which were
strongly opposed by President Bush.
When it came time to vote on Pelosi's SCHIP expansion, Rep. Jim Marshall (D-GA) was the only House Democrat to vote against it.
Marshall, a Blue Dog, represents a conservative district in Macon,
Georgia and had won reelection in 2006 by 1,752 votes--a slim 51-49
percent margin--even amid the Democratic wave. The district had voted
solidly red in the previous two presidential contests.
Marshall had certain problems with the way the bill was written, and, though he supported the broader goal of expanding SCHIP, explained
that "I also have an obligation to the citizens of Middle Georgia to do
everything possible to make sure that the program in its final form
fairly distributes the burden and fairly distributes the benefits."
It was the same complaint Republicans voiced, as well: we don't mind
expanding SCHIP, but Pelosi's bill gives too much money to people too
far above the poverty line, they said.
Democrats understood Marshall's position--and his unique situation as
one of the House's more vulnerable Democrats--and they left him alone.
Today I asked Marshall's communications director, Doug Moore, whether
his boss had been threatened by Democratic leaders throughout the SCHIP
"No, nothing like that," Moore said. "When Jim has opposed legislation,
we've never been threatened. Nobody's ever given him a hard time. They
may try to persuade him why he's wrong," Moore said, but threats were
never part of the equation.
Moore said the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee supported him financially in his reelection race in 2008.
Now, we're hearing the same from Cao. Time reports
heavy lobbying from Cantor, along with White House Chief of Staff Rahm
Emanuel and Nancy-Ann DeParle, who heads Obama's Office of Health
Republicans lost a little bit of face with Cao's vote, especially
coming three votes shy of blocking the legislation altogether, but not
as much face as they would have lost if Cao were out today talking
about draconian threats against him.
Just as it was with Marshall, Cao is in a unique situation, and it
appears that this was more or less understood. In the end, each member
has his or her own district to represent, and his or her own political
concerns to take into account.
The era of Tom DeLay built up an aura of hardball politics in Congress,
but, despite the uniformity of so many party-line votes, members do make decisions themselves.