WASHINGTON — Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell charged Thursday that President Barack Obama had "crossed a dangerous line" when he commented on the Supreme Court's deliberations over the 2010 federal health care law.
"The independence of the court must be defended. Regardless of how the justices decide this case, theyre answerable, above all, to the Constitution they swore to uphold," McConnell said in remarks to the Rotary Club of Lexington, Ky. "The fact that this president does not appear to feel similarly constrained to respect their independence doesnt change that one bit.
"So respectfully," McConnell said, "I would suggest the president back off."
Obama has been under fire from Republicans, who've made repealing the law a central plank in their campaign to defeat him and gain congressional seats next fall.
The president said Monday at a news conference that he was "confident the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress."
The law passed by 219-212 in the House of Representatives. Earlier, the Senate had struggled to get the 60 votes needed to cut off extended debate and approve the measure, but ultimately it passed 60-39. No Republicans voted for the law in either chamber.
Obama said conservatives had complained for years about judicial activism, especially at times when "an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I'm pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step."
Through 2010 the Supreme Court had declared 165 laws that Congress passed to be unconstitutional, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The president softened his language Tuesday, telling a newspaper editors' convention that he thought the justices "take their responsibilities very seriously."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was peppered with questions Thursday about Obama's comments. "His whole point is that he is pretty conversant with judicial precedent," Carney said. Obama was a law lecturer at the University of Chicago.
"And judicial precedent here is clear," Carney said," overwhelmingly on the side" of upholding the health care law.
He called the president's observation "unremarkable," noting, "There has been a long-standing precedent set where the court defers to Congress and to congressional authority in passing legislation to deal with and regulate matters of economic significance. That's all."
The health care law would require nearly everyone to obtain coverage by 2014 or face a penalty. Republicans want it repealed, saying it's an outrageous government intrusion into Americans' lives.
McConnell, the Senate's top Republican, said he'd planned to use his Lexington speech to address the economy and jobs. But he said people should have a "firm response" to Obama's remarks.
"Apparently, President Obama didnt like the tenor of some of the questions the justices asked about the health care law during last weeks hearings, questions that highlighted the unprecedented power that the administration now has over your and everybody elses health care as a result of its passage," the Kentucky senator said.
"So earlier this week, the president did something that as far as I know is completely unprecedented: He not only tried to publicly pressure the court into deciding a pending case in the way he wants it decided, he also questioned its very authority under the Constitution."
Scholars say it's hardly unusual for presidents to criticize the court, though even some who are sympathetic to Obama suggest that his criticism may have been ill-timed, since the justices are weighing the case now. Most presidential criticism of the high court has come in response to court rulings.
McConnell said Obama went too far.
"The president seems to be saying that youre an activist if youre not stretching the limits of the limited powers the Constitution gives to the federal government," he said. "This is not about what I think of the president as a person. Its what I think of the duties of the office hes sworn to uphold.
"We can all disagree about the merits of a presidents policies. But the American people should be able to expect that their president will defend the independence of the court, not undermine it, safeguarding and strengthening our countrys institutions, not actively weakening them."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow David Lightman on Twitter: @LightmanDavid
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington