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Charles in Charge

Tonight the GOP response to Obama’s prime-time health care speech will be delivered by Louisiana Congressman Charles Boustany, Jr., a little-known former heart surgeon who has been serving the state’s 7th district since 2005. Boustany is an interesting choice for the GOP considering the hype surrounding the speech and that the last rebuttal to the president came from high-profile 2012 contender Bobby Jindal. So who is he?

Boustany, 53, was born in Lafayette, Louisiana to Lebanese immigrant grandparents and a Democrat father who served as Lafayette Parish coroner for 16 years. (Boustany is also related to another big Dem--Vicki Reggie Kennedy.) Breaking from family tradition, he served on the Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee. Elected to Congress in 2004 as a “rank and file Republican,” he has sponsored 22 bills since taking office in 2005, 18 of which haven’t made it out of committee, and only two of which were successfully enacted. He has co-sponsored 529 bills, causing GovTrack to call him a “follower.”

Boustany, who is a member of the House GOP health care task force and the Committee of Ways and Means (and the ranking member on the subcommittee on oversight), appears to have a relatively small congressional record thus far. (Often forgotten is his bill “congratulating Jockey Calvin Borel for his victory at the 135th Kentucky Derby.”) Despite his failure to champion any significant legislation, he has been capitalizing on his medical degree (he is a cardiovascular surgeon) on the talk show circuit for the past few months by offering a doctor’s opinion on the state of the country’s health care. His highest-profile public gig to date was the weekly Republican address in May, which may serve as a good preview of his speech tonight.

But Boustany’s past statements indicate that perhaps he isn’t completely GOP “rank and file” on health care. First of all, in a party that has seemingly been on a crusade to block all health care reform, Boustany is, according to the National Journal, a “true believer of reform,” even if it’s in a different way than Obama and Congressional Dems propose. Back in November 2004, when Boustany was first running for Congress, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported that the candidate wanted “to help shift people from depending on their employers to get affordable health care, and make changes to allow them to manage their own care while still getting the affordable rates they see from employer-sponsored health insurance plans.” In March of this year he said:

When I first got here … I had a high level of frustration that we weren’t tackling health care. … There is a concern that we have not been aggressive enough on health care and espoused that as a Republican core issue. I, for one--and I can speak for others--am determined to change that.

And more recently, in an August MSNBC interview he said, “Well let me just say that--I will be the first one to tell you that we have problems with our system and we need reform. But it has to be well thought out and done in a substantive way.”

Furthermore, Boustany was actually one of the House members to propose the creation of Sarah Palin’s infamous “death panels.” He is a co-sponsor of the bill that would enable Medicare to pay for end-of-life counseling, and he has explicitly defended the bill. Last month he explained that these counseling sessions between doctors and patients are “good medical practice” and insisted again that these services be provided: “This happens every day, multiple times, in hospitals across the country. It's a very important issue.” And in regards to the outrage: “Frankly, this thing got really out of hand.”

These statements are in stark contrast to those of the more front-and-center Republican health care point men like Chuck Grassley. It’s difficult to believe that that the choice of a more center-right, pragmatic voice is signaling a new spirit of bipartisanship from Republicans. But as Boustany himself said in a 2004 interview, “Having access to affordable available health care is not a Republican or Democrat issue.”