WASHINGTON -- Called a prostitute by conservative talk show hosts, a Louisiana Democrat on Thursday defended a deal she cut for her Hurricane Katrina-ravaged state in the Senate health care bill.
Sen. Mary Landrieu insisted the Medicaid boost worth $300 million wasn't in exchange for her vote for President Barack Obama's sweeping health care plan and she noted that Louisiana Republicans backed the deal. Defiantly, she said she would do it all over again if she had to.
"I don't need this job badly enough -- maybe some people do, I don't -- to throw the people of my state under the bus to protect myself politically," Landrieu said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor.
Watch Landrieu's speech on Senate floor (Feb. 4, 2010):
The deal has been derided as the "Louisiana Purchase" and conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have both labeled Landrieu a "prostitute" for obtaining it.
In recent weeks, Obama has also alluded to messy dealmaking as a reason for public skepticism about the health care bill. He referred in his State of the Union speech to "lobbying and horse-trading" and told ABC News earlier, "It's an ugly process and it looks like there are a bunch of backroom deals."
Even so, the bill was on the verge of completion before Republican Scott Brown's upset win in a Massachusetts special election last month threw the legislative effort into disarray. Brown was sworn in Thursday to replace the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, giving Republicans their 41st vote and depriving Democrats of their filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate.
Obama hasn't referred specifically to Landrieu's deal and Landrieu said Thursday that the administration supported it. She said she'd spoken several days ago to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and that Sebelius remained supportive. Sebelius would not confirm that when questioned by a reporter.
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Obama, meanwhile, pressed congressional leaders at the White House to move the stalled legislation forward, even while acknowledging Congress might not act. He said the next step was to meet with Republicans.
Returning from the White House meeting, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the discussion had focused mostly on jobs legislation. He would not say whether Obama had indicated support for advancing the health care bill using a controversial procedure requiring a simple majority vote in the Senate -- the leading option under consideration by congressional leaders.
"We're still talking about that. The president favors moving forward, with the procedure of how to do that mainly in the hands of the Senate and the House leadership," Hoyer said.
Advancing the bill under simple majority rules would avoid the need for any GOP support, but Obama increasingly is calling for bipartisanship.
"What I'd like to have is to have a meeting whereby I'm siting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts and let's just go through these bills. Their ideas, our ideas. ... And then I think that we got to go ahead and move forward on a vote," Obama said at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday evening.
Obama has long said that failure is not an option on the health overhaul, his top domestic priority last year, but Thursday night he seemed to acknowledge it was.
"It may be that Congress decides that ... we're not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, all the options are clear, that the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not," Obama said. "That's how democracy works."
Landrieu said that because it was unclear what would happen with the health legislation she wanted to act to protect her deal.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana stood to lose federal reimbursements for Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for the poor, because the state's post-hurricane economic surge temporarily boosted per-capita income that's used to determine Medicaid payments. Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, was among those joining Landrieu in pushing for more money.
At a news conference in Baton Rouge, La., Jindal defended the need for the changes to the Medicaid formula, but said he opposed the Senate health care bill, even with the money included.
Asked whether Landrieu was wrong to put the money in the Senate bill, Jindal didn't respond directly and instead said, "I'm not a member of Congress. I'm not going to tell them what bills to draft and what bills to amend."
Conservative activist James O'Keefe cited the deal as a rationale for his recent attempt to capture hidden camera footage in Landrieu's New Orleans office. O'Keefe and three others were arrested Jan. 25 in the incident. O'Keefe has said the group wanted to investigate complaints that constituents calling Landrieu's office couldn't get through to criticize her support of the health overhaul bill.
Landrieu said that incident was not the reason for her public comments Thursday.
"What I said about the gentleman that's rattling off is he should save his excuses for the judge. He's going to need them," she told reporters after her floor speech.
Landrieu's defiant stance stands in contrast to that of another moderate Democrat, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, who also negotiated a Medicaid deal for his state, the so-called Cornhusker Kickback. So much controversy surrounded it that Nelson ultimately asked for it to be withdrawn, even while insisting that he never wanted anything special for Nebraska. Nelson's deal would have protected Nebraska in perpetuity from the cost of a Medicaid expansion, whereas Landrieu's was to be a one-time deal.
Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington and Melinda DeSlatte in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.