In a public forum defined as much by passionate declarations on abortion as by statements about health care policy intricacies, U.S. Rep. Ahn "Joseph" Cao, R-New Orleans, said Thursday that he "leans" toward supporting the House Democrats' vision of a medical system overhaul provided it won't pay for procedures to end pregnancy.
"The word is 'leaning, ' " he repeated to about 150 people gathered at an Irish Channel Neighborhood Association meeting, the first of four planned public forums for Cao during the August recess.
Besides the abortion caveat, Cao further tempered his statement with his concerns about how major policy changes affect the federal budget, future deficit projections, the larger economy and Medicare recipients.
"These are issues that concern the president as well, " Cao said, adding one of his many references to the complexity of the proposals and his continued struggle on a decision.
Matthew Hinton/The Times-PicayunePeople speak with U.S. Rep. Anh 'Joseph' Cao, R-La., at the end of a health care forum Thursday at Irish Channel Christian Fellowship.
President Barack Obama's administration considers the congressman from an overwhelmingly Democratic 2nd District a potential Republican defector, and his willingness to discuss a 'yea' vote is significant in an increasingly partisan debate marked by contentious town-hall style meetings across the country.
The spirited session at Irish Channel Christian Fellowship was not short on raised voices, enthusiastic applause and hearty boos. But there were no physical altercations, security problems or disruptions that have greeted some congressmen, particularly Democrats, in public appearances this month.
Cao heard from a crowd that seemed overwhelmingly in favor of a major system overhaul, with several questioners explicitly advocating a public option and chiding Cao for his statements about abortion and his party's framing of the larger debate.
Melanie Miranda of the Irish Channel criticized Cao's previous public statements about his Catholic faith and his absolute opposition to abortion. "I didn't vote for you because you are a Jesuit, " she said. "I voted for you to represent your constituents."
Federal law, called the Hyde Amendment, already bars taxpayer-paid abortion, and the bill that has passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee does not explicitly alter that policy. Cao contends that any bill must include language to reaffirm the Hyde Amendment or risk being interpreted as a loophole to existing law.
Patrick Fahey of the Garden District asked Cao, "Why are we so concerned about abortion when we have children already here without health care?" his voice rising with each word.
Cao replied calmly that his is a "moral position, " not a "religious position." He said, "I cannot compromise that particular stance."
Matthew Hinton/The Times-PicayuneIrish Channel resident Austin King gets applause from the crowd while asking U.S. Rep. Anh 'Joseph' Cao, R-La., a question at the health care forum.
Dan Zimmerman asked Cao to account for other Republicans, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who have criticized the bill by misrepresenting elements such as end-of-life counseling for Medicare recipients. Palin called them "death panels."
"Can the Republicans have reasonable debate if they have to lie about the content of the bill?" Zimmerman said. The congressman said the intricacies of the bill can be open to "interpretation."
New Orleans resident Sally Stevens offered perhaps the most dramatic moment, walking up to face Cao and leaving on a table beside him a stack of what appeared to be medical bills.
Saying she is uninsured despite employment and a college education, she declared, "I'm going to let you and your lobbyists pay these bills." She then turned and left.
Some in the crowd identified themselves as opponents of any public option. A man who identified himself as Roy asked Cao, "How can a company survive against a competitor who doesn't have to make a profit?" The man refused afterward to provide a last name, citing concerns of retaliation from the Obama administration.
Several questioners expressed appreciation to Cao for attending, but Chris Lane told the congressman, "We've heard a lot of iterations of 'the bill is complex.' . . . We haven't heard a lot of leadership."
Cao emphasized the fluidity of a process that involves multiple bills -- only one of which has cleared a committee in either chamber -- and the unpredictability of last-minute negotiations between House and Senate leaders before any final vote occurs.
How he votes initially may not be the same as his vote on a final bill, he said. "I don't believe in too much federal intervention. I don't believe in inadequate federal action. The question is to find the right balance."