The GOP vote: Why Cao said 'yes'

Despite his promise to replicate his first legislative victory as whip, when all Republicans in the House opposed President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was not able to produce unanimous GOP opposition on the healthcare measure.

Lone GOP defector Rep. Joseph Cao (La.) was among the last elevator of members to make it to the House floor for votes on Saturday night.

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Word had spread that the vulnerable lawmaker informed his leadership that he was going to support the Democratic healthcare bill, and he refused to speak with reporters in the short distance from the elevator to House floor.

When the time came for the vote on final passage, Cantor slid into the seat right of Cao to continue pressuring the freshman lawmaker to oppose the vote and deny the White House any bipartisan edge to its victory.

Once the tally board lit up 218-213, however, Cao was free to put his congressional voting card in electronic key slot and cast an “aye” vote for the bill his party has dubbed “Pelosi’s healthcare bill.”

He did it quickly, and quietly, while the rest of the chamber was applauding for having cleared the vote threshold needed for passage, the vulnerable Republican was recorded as voting for the sweeping $1.2 trillion measure.

Throughout the several votes leading up to final passage, Cao was flanked by senior lawmaker Rep. Don Young (R-Ark.) and senior Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

At various points during the 40-minute period, GOP lawmakers approached their colleague for one final chat.

Young, who appeared to be fending off his GOP colleagues who might have twisted Cao's arms, said that Cao made the right decision to vote for the final bill.

Doing so was in the best interest of his New Orleans-based district that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008.

"If the Stupak amendment hadn’t passed he would have voted 'no,' if it did pass it’d serve his main problem with the bill. He did the right thing," Young told The Hill.

As soon as the House started the final vote for the day, Cao voted and dashed out the side of the chamber, plugging his ears in jest when reporters approached to find out what happened.

According to a written statement released later that night, Cao explained that Obama had promised to help out the lawmaker’s district still devastated from Hurricane Katrina.

“Today, I obtained a commitment from President Obama that he and I will work together to address the critical health care issues of Louisiana including the FMAP crisis and community disaster loan forgiveness, as well as issues related to Charity and Methodist Hospitals,” Cao wrote.

Moments after casting the vote, several Democratic lawmakers gathered behind the lawmaker, who was sandwiched by Rep. Don Young (R-Ak.) on one side and Cantor on the other.

Sources in the vicinity tell The Hill that Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) told Cao that the powerful lawmaker would “go to his (New Orleans) district” with him. 

It was unclear whether that meant Oberstar would campaign with Cao or simply visit the areas still in need of federal dollars for transportation-related projects.

Oberstar's office had yet to respond to request for comments at the time of publishing.

For weeks, Cao has been a wild card for his party on the landmark bill, but his consistent objection was over funding for abortions.

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Until late last night, however, it appeared that Democrats weren’t going to give Rep. Bart Stupak's (D-Mich.) amendment a vote on the floor, which landed Cao in the “no” column.

But things changed when, late Friday night, the Speaker agreed to move the bill with Stupak’s strict language to ban federal funding for abortions included in the measure.

It was a move that prompted some confusion in the minority party on Saturday in terms of floor tactics, but primarily posed the problem of losing a Republican.

The White House launched a full-court press on Saturday to recruit GOP support for the landmark bill.

The effort paid off when Cao decided to support the bill.

Despite the efforts of his leadership, including Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) repeated trips to the House floor to demand that each chairman with a piece of the bill “gurarantee” that Stupak’s amendment be in the final measure that passes out of conference committee, Cao only agreed to hold off voting for the bill until Democrats reached the magic number 218.

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