Cao's Vote: A Historical Perspective

Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the House Democratic health care bill--a move that surprised many, and a vote that some analysts are making a big deal of today.

It is significant in that Democrats can claim their bill passed with "bipartisan support," and because House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA), just two days prior, promised a crowd of tea partiers at a Capitol Hill rally that not a single Republican would vote in favor of the bill. Obviously, that didn't happen.

Cao says he wasn't threatened or intimidated by the GOP leadership.

"No, I have not [been threatened]. My leadership has been very good to me. They respect my decision, even though it's something they may not agree with, but at the end of the day, we're all professionals, and they are very supportive of who I am and they are proud that I am a member of the Republican Party," Cao said on MSNBC this morning. No one in the Republican leadership told him his campaign funding would be cut off, Cao said.

Keep in mind that Cao replaced Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), who was convicted in August on 11 of 16 counts of bribery-related offenses. The New Orleans district he took over is very Democratic: it voted 76 percent for Al Gore in 2000 and 75 percent for John Kerry in 2004. Cao is expected by many to lose his seat in 2010.

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 battle.

"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 Reform.

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.