Joe Cao (pronounced Gow) is the name on most people’s lips Inside the Beltway this morning. So, how did this freshman Republican escape GOP Whip Eric Cantor’s hammer to vote with Democrats for health care reform, ruining Cantor’s goal of unified opposition?
Cao arrived in Houston at the age of eight with his parents and two siblings as refugees from Vietnam. Cao’s father, a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, had spent the better part of the previous seven years in a North Vietnamese “reeducation camp.” Cao originally became a Roman Catholic Priest, serving six years in a Jesuit seminary after getting his bachelors degree in physics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. After leaving the priesthood he received a master’s in philosophy from Fordham University in New York and a law degree from Loyola in New Orleans in 2000, where he also taught undergraduate philosophy. He practiced immigration law before getting involved in politics after Hurricane Katrina.
After upsetting nine-term incumbent William Jefferson – who was under indictment at the time for taking bribes — in 2008, Cao became the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress. He holds the most Democratic seat – rated D+28 by the Cook Political Report – of any Republican. He’s married to Hieu “Kate” Hoang, whom he met at Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in New Orleans East in 1998. The couple still attends the church with their two daughters.
So how did Cao end up voting for the bill? He was subject to much lobbying from three sides: the White House, embodied by Nancy Ann DeParle, Rahm Emanuel and President Obama; Eric Cantor, the GOP Whip; and, harkening back to his early years as a young priest, the Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Louisiana chapter was the only one to endorse the bill in October, long before the hot button issue of abortion was even raised. Cao had objected, along with more than 60 pro-life Democrats, to the idea that the legislation might help fund abortions. After last minute negotiations, Democratic leaders agreed to allow an amendment authored by Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat, that would ensure that no money could go to funding abortions. The amendment passed, gaining the bill the support of the national Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Thanks to the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, taxpayer dollars will not go to supporting elective abortions, and for thousands of my constituents, this was a top priority,” Cao said in a statement. “By incorporating this amendment into the health reform bill, my colleagues and I made this bill better, and that is an achievement of which I will always be proud.”
But by far the most amount of pressure came from Cantor and the White House. Obama pledged to work with Cao on additional financial aid for his district, especially in disaster loan forgiveness, and on help paying for expanded Medicaid services under the bill in the years to come. Cantor also lobbied Cao, meeting with him several times Saturday. Of course, according to Cao, the decision was purely altruistic. “I have always said that I would put aside partisan wrangling to do the business of the people. My vote tonight was based on my priority of doing what is best for my constituents,” Cao said in his statement.