By Molly K. Hooper - 07/30/09 07:41 PM EDT
The vulnerable GOP Louisiana lawmaker told The Hill that the White House legislative liaison assigned to lean on Cao, Jim Papa, recently contacted his office. But Cao says the White House will have to wait because he is still reading the bill, which is over 1,000 pages long.
But his GOP colleagues believe Cao can beat the odds — as he has throughout his life. Cao was on one of the last flights to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in the Vietnam War. Cao was raised by an uncle after his parents and five sisters did not make it out of the country.
In his simply decorated office, with a large pot of white silk orchids, there are two binders stacked on the floor to the left of his desk and another thick binder opened to page 367. He’s read the first two versions of the healthcare bill and is in the middle of the third.
Studying comes naturally to the practicing attorney who spent several years as a Jesuit seminarian.
At first, House Republicans wrote off the support their soft-spoken freshman colleague would offer them because of his district’s strong Democratic base. But over the past eight months, Cao has managed to change their minds. And they have helped change his on occasion.
For example, Cao considered voting for the stimulus and the budget resolution, but GOP leaders helped convince him to reject both measures.
The freshman has befriended Rep. Don YoungDon YoungCherry Blossom Princesses begin their annual reign Republicans raise legal questions ahead of Gitmo order House votes to speed up tribal energy projects MORE (R-Alaska), who is in his 19th term. The two men are often seen sitting next to one another on the floor during votes.
In many ways, they couldn’t be more different. The 42-year-old Cao is just over 5 feet tall; Young, 76, is 6 feet, 5 inches. Cao was an ethics professor at Loyola University; Young has reportedly been under federal investigation.
According to Cao, Young answers his questions on legislation and discusses how bills would affect his district. In addition to poring over the complicated healthcare bill, Cao has been reading Dostoyevsky’s eight-volume The Brothers Karamazov.
“I deeply respect him. He’s a lot of fun to be around. We have good conversations and he’s very bright,” Young said of Cao.
And the healthcare debate is causing his new friend many headaches.
Young said that Cao’s “most agonizing problem is the healthcare vote, if it comes up.”
Cao has not ruled out supporting the president’s overhaul of the healthcare system, but he has his reservations. He says he has to weigh many concerns, such as the lack of provisions prohibiting federal funding of abortions.
“The bill needs to address the pro-life issue for the people of my district and the issue of cost and quality of care in New Orleans,” Cao said.
National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) has spent a lot of time with Cao, whom he says is “a favorite of members” and always has the best interests of the New Orleans at the fore of his mind — even if that means voting against Republicans.
Cao was one of five Republicans to support the president’s war supplemental bill and one of 41 to vote for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill.
“He has found his own footing about what he stands for and how he talks to people, and he wants to do well for New Orleans,” Sessions said.
As a native of Vietnam representing a majority-black district, Cao tops the list of vulnerable House Republicans in the 2010 election.
Cao stunned political experts by defeating Jefferson last year. For Democratic leaders, the loss was good news because Jefferson’s alleged criminal activity had become a distraction, especially after they won control of the House by portraying Republicans as unethical.
After Cao defeated Jefferson, House Minority Leader John BoehnerJohn BoehnerCruz confronts Trump supporter Graham: 'Lucifer may be the only person Trump can beat in a general election' Obama mocks GOP, media and himself in final WHCA dinner address MORE (R-Ohio) issued a memo to House Republicans titled “The Future is Cao.” The memo stressed the need for the GOP to emphasize ethics in the 2010 cycle.
Cao’s stunning victory became a national story, and partly because of that, he has collected political donations from 18 states as well as the District of Columbia, according to CQMoneyLine.
BoehnerJohn BoehnerCruz confronts Trump supporter Graham: 'Lucifer may be the only person Trump can beat in a general election' Obama mocks GOP, media and himself in final WHCA dinner address MORE, who hosted a fundraiser for Cao in New Orleans, acknowledged that his junior colleague has “his work cut out for him.”
Party politics do not come into play when he votes, Cao claimed. And they won’t on healthcare reform.
He acknowledges that Republican leaders have asked him where he stands, adding, “I’m trying to look at the needs of my district, the needs of the country and go from there.”
Even when the White House approached him on the stimulus and climate change, sources familiar with the conversations told The Hill that “there was no attempt to strike backroom deals … no horse-trading.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), points to a strong pool of Democratic contenders vying for the party’s nomination to compete in the general election. He says that Cao is “out of touch with his district.”
After winning a net of 54 seats over the last two elections, Democrats privately say they are playing more defense this cycle. But it is clear they will be playing offense in Louisiana’s 2nd district.
“He voted against an economic recovery plan in a district where they want to turn the economy around,” Van Hollen said, noting that the DCCC has not endorsed a Democratic contender for that seat.
Cao is preparing for the battle. He has nearly $340,000 cash on hand, with some contributions from his colleagues, including Reps. Sessions, Boehner, Eric CantorEric CantorRepublicans who vow to never back Trump NRCC upgrades 11 'Young Guns' candidates Cruz, Kasich join forces to stop Trump MORE (R-Va.), Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.).