In Congress, Voting Your Own Way And Paying For It

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Some lawmakers often struggle between voting with their party or conscience, and the decision can bear negative consequences for those lawmakers. That may be what some are thinking when it comes to debates around the debt. Host Michel Martin speaks with former congressional representatives Marjorie Margolies and Ahn "Joseph" Cao to learn why they voted with their consciences and what happened afterward.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, today is Nelson Mandela's birthday. The former president of South Africa and anti-apartheid icon is turning 93 years old today. We'll talk about a new book of his quotations later in the program.

But first, we want to start the week with a different look at the deadlock over deficits and the debt ceiling. Democrats and Republicans are still at work on a spending plan, but there seems to be no viable compromise on the table that would stave off a default on our country's $14.3 trillion in debt.

GOP leaders say that President Obama's insistence that revenue increases be part of a spending plan is a non-starter. Here's Arizona Senator Jon Kyl talking yesterday on ABC's "This Week."


Senator JON KYL: Unless the president gets off of his absolute obsession with raising taxes, Republicans are not going to agree to do anything that will harm our economy.

MARTIN: President Obama has been saying for months that hyper-partisanship is hurting the government's ability to get things done. Here he is speaking with Boston-area college students back in March.


President BARACK OBAMA: The nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process that means you don't get 100 percent of what you want. You don't get it if you're in the majority, you don't get it if you're in the minority. And you can be honorable in politics understanding that you're not going to get 100 percent of what you want.

MARTIN: Is there still room for compromise in today's political climate? Do more of our leaders need to be prepared to lose their jobs over votes that they feel are correct but unpopular? We decided to talk with two people who have voted their consciences rather than along party lines and who paid a price.

Joining us today are former representatives Marjorie Margolies and Ahn "Joseph" Cao. Representative Margolies was a Democrat from Pennsylvania, and he was a Republican from Louisiana. And I welcome you both and thank you both so much for joining us.

AHN JOSEPH CAO: Thank you very much.

MARJORIE MARGOLIES: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: And former congresswoman Marjorie Margolies, I'm going to start with you. You voted for the 1993 budget during Bill Clinton's administration. It was very unpopular with some of your constituents. There was one particular vote, after you voted - you actually wrote about this subsequently - one of your fellow congressmen jumped up and down on the floor saying yelling: Bye-bye, Marjorie. And...

MARGOLIES: He was a great jumper.


MARTIN: He was a great jumper. And I wanted to know what was going through your mind when you cast the vote? Did you think in fact, this is it for me? I'm going to be gone after this?

MARGOLIES: No, I thought I'd be able to fight for it. I thought I'd be able to explain it. It was tough. I did think at that time that I was definitely putting myself in jeopardy.

MARTIN: And why did you decide to do that?

MARGOLIES: Because it was the right thing to do. You know, you go down there and you think that everything is very linear, somewhat linear, that you're going to be voting on things that make a lot of sense. And in these bills, 80 percent you may agree with, and 20 percent you don't. And that's the 20 percent that the press is seizing on, and it's tough. These votes are very tough.

MARTIN: Mr. Cao you voted for the original draft of the healthcare bill in 2009, although you did finally vote - you voted against the final iteration of it on the floor. But at the time you voted for it, you were the only Republican who voted for it. And I wondered whether you thought that you were putting your own career at risk as well?

CAO: When I voted for the original House bill, I - being a Republican representative in the most Democratic district in the country and also a minority district - had to consider the needs of the people that I represented. It was the people that had a - 25 percent of the people did not have healthcare. And also, we were contending with post-Katrina reconstruction. And so, healthcare was always a major issue down here in the New Orleans area.

And so, I felt compelled to vote according to the needs of the people that I represented as long as the bill or the issue that I voted on did not ask me to compromise some of my core moral values. I am strongly pro-life. And so, when we were able to get the abortion restriction language, the Stupak amendments, into the House bill at the very last minute, I had made a commitment to the president that if we were able to get the language in, then I would vote for the bill. And so I did.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking with two people who paid a price for voting their consciences even though those weren't popular votes at the time. I'm speaking with Representative Joseph Cao from Louisiana and Marjorie Margolies of Pennsylvania, former representatives. They both served one term after taking difficult votes.

So, Representative Margolies, I wanted to ask you, I know that the situation isn't exactly analogous. But obviously one of the reasons we called you is that both sides on these deficit and debt issues seem very dug in. And they're both saying that, really, both sides are saying that they're voting their principles here.

The Republicans are saying that they feel that they have a mandate to cut spending. The president's saying he feels he has a mandate to have what he calls a more balanced approach. Based on your experience, how do you get out of that corner, if I can put it that way?

MARGOLIES: Well, there are separate areas here. Raising the debt ceiling has absolutely nothing to do with dealing with future spending or with raising taxes or revenue enhancement, as they say. It's necessary to pay for future spending. It's just a matter of paying bills that we've already incurred.

The Democrats, when a Republican is in the White House, I mean, balk. Same thing with the Republicans. The limit's been raised 74 times in 50 years and 10 times in the last 10 years. You know, it's just nuts that we could default on our debt obligation and trigger another, I think, we'd trigger another financial crisis. It is the difference frankly between representing and leading.

MARTIN: You felt that you could explain your vote. You thought you had a vote of conscience. You thought it was the right thing to do, ironically, for the long term fiscal health of the country and you thought you'd explain it.

MARGOLIES: And it worked.

MARTIN: But you couldn't.

MARGOLIES: Yeah, well, exactly. And now, first of all, it was early. What part of the '90s did people not like with regard to finance? You know, in the year 2000, we had a surplus and we've completely frittered that away. I felt that I could. I was absolutely wrong.

MARTIN: Mr. Cao, how about you? I mean, your situation again is not entirely analogous because you were kind of a fish out of water in your district just like Ms. Margolies was a fish out of water in hers. I mean, she was a Democrat representing a very Republican district. You were a Republican representing a very Democratic district. So, you were a little bit of a fish out of water anyway.

But your vote, the vote for healthcare was much more kind of in line with the politics of your district. What about that second vote when you voted against it? Did you feel that perhaps you were - that would cost you your seat?

CAO: Absolutely. I knew that when I casted the no vote against the final passage of healthcare that it would mean that I would have to defend for my life. And when President Obama came - did a commercial for my opponent, I knew that I was in a very difficult position because my people was 65 percent African-American. And when you have an African-American president advocating for another African-American candidate, that was a very difficult battle for me to overcome.

MARTIN: So, why did you do it?

CAO: So, when...

MARTIN: Why did you do it? You knew - you thought it might cost you your seat. It was one of the factors that you knew would make it much more difficult for you. So why did you do it?

CAO: Correct. But as a strong pro-life advocate, I felt compelled not to support the final pass to healthcare because, as I mentioned already, it did not contain the language sufficient to restrict federal funding for abortion. And I could not go against my own conscience in that issue.

And right now, I'm able to wake up in the morning, you know, look at myself and say, hey, you did the right thing. So, for me when I came to the House, it was all about doing the right thing. When I supported issues, for example, to go against the stimulus bill, to go against cap and trade, to vote for the financial overhaul bill, it was all about what is right for the people that I represented down here in the New Orleans area.

So, as a representative of the people, we have to make those very difficult decisions, and to put into the context of this debt ceiling issue that we are confronted right now, I believe that there will be ideological differences. And when I was in the House, I was not sure whether or not people voted, you know, for ideological purposes or because of what their conscience dictated. It's a very, I guess, ambiguous notion. But we have to assume that the tension that we are seeing right now are based on ideological as well as for many people a conscience issue.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you briefly, do you have any advice to your former colleagues who are confronting these issues now, who say, as you both did at various points, that you felt caught between what you thought was right and the politics of the situation at the moment? Or even perhaps what you thought was right was not in line with the politics of your district - do you have some advice? I gave Ms. Margolies the first word, so I'm going to give Mr. Cao the last word. So, Ms. Margolies, will you go first? Do you have any advice for your colleagues?

MARGOLIES: Absolutely. But it's coming from a lousy politician.


MARGOLIES: I would definitely go with what the right thing to do is. There is no way that we can default on our debt obligation. I just think that we've got to figure out how we can get this country in line and pay our debts and make sure that we can reduce the debt and the deficit. Do what's right. Now, I say this, don't worry about a re-election. That's what it seems to me is what's happening down there. They're much more interested in holding their seats than doing the right thing.

MARTIN: Mr. Cao, final thought from you?

CAO: Yes. And I'm pretty sure that, at the end of the day, that there will be a bill that will increase the debt limit.

MARGOLIES: I agree. I think it's going to happen.

CAO: Yes. We see the political rhetoric and we see the divisiveness that the media portrays. But behind all of these images, there are very good people who are concerned about the welfare of this country. And ultimately they will increase the debt limit.

MARGOLIES: The debt obligation.


CAO: Right.

And that we will be able to resolve this problem.

MARTIN: Ahn Joseph Cao is a former Republican congressman from Louisiana. He's currently considering a run for state attorney general. He was kind enough to join us from WWNO in New Orleans. Marjorie Margolies is a former Democratic congresswoman from Pennsylvania.

MARGOLIES: We did drive-bys.

MARTIN: She's the founder and chair of Women's Campaign International, a group that tries to empower women through the political system around the world. She also is currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. And she was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia. I thank you both so much for joining us.

CAO: Thank you.

MARGOLIES: Thank you, Michel.

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