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Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao held his first of four health care town hall meetings tonight at the regular neighborhood association meeting of the Irish Channel Christian Fellowship on First Street. More than 100 people turned out to hear the congressman and ask questions, but the tenor -- while tense at times -- was largely free of the rancor at so many other health care town halls this heated season.

Cao won points from the crowd by taking questions by a lottery system, rather than having them prescreened (as Sen. David Vitter has been doing at his town halls).

Judging from the random questions, the crowd was pro-health care reform and skeptical about Cao's commitment to the cause. For his part, Cao said he was undecided on the D.C. plan (or plans), but in an interview earlier this month that was widely quoted in the Catholic press, he sounded pretty definite:

“At the end of the day if the health care reform bill does not have strong language prohibiting the use of federal funding for abortion, then the bill is really a no-go for me,” said Cao, who spent time in formation to be a Jesuit priest....

“I know that voting against the health care bill will probably be the death of my political career,” Cao said, “but I have to live with myself, and I always reflect on the phrase of the New Testament, ‘How does it profit a man's life to gain the world but to lose his soul.’”

So what did the Congressman have to say to a crowd that was clearly more concerned with health-care reform than abortion? Answers under the jump...

Edited to add: Bill Barrow's account of the meeting is up at The Times-Picayune's Web site. Barrow's account is thorough, but his takeaway is that Cao is "leaning" TOWARD the Democratic plan, which certainly wasn't my impression, nor the impression of anyone with whom I spoke after the meeting. Instead, Cao said his possible approval would be based on three fairly stringent conditions (unambiguous language about abortion, assurances that Medicare/Medicaid wouldn't be harmed, and a better understanding as to how this would affect the Federal budget. It seemed to me, based on the meeting and on earlier statements, that Cao was leaning in precisely the opposite direction. Were you there? What did you think?

Does he support the bill in general? "Do I support it? I'm stlll studying it...I am concerned how it will affect Medicare and Medicaid recipients."

On his opposition to abortion: "It's not a religious issue, it's an issue of morality."

Health care aside, what's his position on the Healthy Families Act? "I haven't read it."

One man traced many of America's current ills back to the Federal Reserve, and asked if Cao would be willing to abolish the Fed. Cao said he'd have to study it. (This was the point where the crowd began to groan. "Just answer yes or no," said one man.)

A former registered nurse at Charity Hospital said she'd been inside the building and thought it was rehab-able, then wondered why Cao was not in favor of reopening it. "I have not taken any public position" on reopening Charity, Cao said.

A questioner asked if Cao knew what percentage of Louisianas were on Medicare and Medicaid. He didn't: "My staff can get that for you."

Abortion again. One man called the issue a "straw man" and asked for a straight yes or no as to whether Cao would support health care reform if it did not fund abortions. Cao said it wasn't a yes or no issue. Another man rebutted by asking "How can you entrust a government that endorses abortion -- how can you entrust them with human life?" That question got applause from Cao's supporters.

In all, there were some tense and prickly moments (including a woman who stalked to the front of the room to deliver what she claimed was a sheaf of medical bills that were going to make her lose her house), but overall it was genteel as Sunday brunch compared to the rabid scenes we've all seen played out on cable news. Rep. Neil Abramson, who slipped in toward the end, said he'd been at another town hall a few days ago that devolved into a screaming match at times.

If you want the chance to question Mr. Cao, you'll have three more chances:

Tuesday, August 18th

Jefferson Performing Arts Center

177 Sala Avenue

Westwego, Louisiana 70094

6pm – 7:30pm CST

Thursday, August 20th

Delgado Community College

West Bank Campus

2600 General Meyer Avenue

Building #1, Room 130

New Orleans, LA 70114

6pm – 7:30pm CST

Monday, August 31st

Kenner Heritage Hall

303 Williams Blvd

Kenner, Louisiana

6pm – 7:30pm CST


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