WASHINGTON -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that President Barack Obama "crossed a dangerous line" this week with his Supreme Court comments and warned that the president needs to "back off" and let the high court do its work.
During remarks at the Rotary Club of Lexington in his home state, McConnell said Obama was out of line when he said Monday that it would be "an unprecedented, extraordinary step," even tantamount to "judicial activism," if the Supreme Court overturned his health care law. Republicans have pounced on the president's choice of words and say they amount to trying to intimidate court justices. The White House has been defending the remarks all week. The court is currently weighing whether the individual mandate -- the core piece of Obama's signature law -- is unconstitutional because it requires every American to purchase health insurance.
"He looked at the line that wisely separates the three branches of government and stepped right over it," McConnell said of Obama, according to his prepared remarks. "But what the president did this week went even further. With his words, he was no longer trying to embarrass the court after a decision; rather, he tried to intimidate it before a decision has been made. And that should be intolerable to all of us."
The GOP leader said Obama's words were "particularly troubling" given the way he has treated the court in the past. He cited an incident two years ago when the president used a State of the Union address "to publicly chastise the court for its decision on a another case he didn't like -- with members of the court sitting just a few feet away." McConnell was referring to the president condemning the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case in Janurary 2010. In a split vote, the justices ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations and unions.
Ultimately, it is the Supreme Court's duty to ensure "we're a nation ruled by laws," McConnell said. "It’s why justices enjoy the freedom to decide cases as they see fit, even if it means upsetting the very president who appointed them."
He said his disagreement with Obama over the comments "is not about what I think of the president as a person," but what he thinks of the duties of the president. The Republican leader urged others to condemn the president's remarks.
"The president crossed a dangerous line this week. And anyone who cares about liberty needs to call him out on it," McConnell said. "So respectfully, I would suggest the president back off. Let the court do its work."
McConnell, of course, is the same GOP leader who said in November 2010 that "the single most important thing" that Republicans hope to accomplish in Congress is "for President Obama to be a one-term president.
UPDATE: 3:45 p.m. -- Senate Democrats later defended Obama's comments.
"I happen to agree as a lawyer and an appellate lawyer ... that it would be an activist jump for the Supreme Court to deny that a mandate is constitutional after 40 years of it being supported by the Republican Party, from Richard Nixon to John Chaffee to the Heritage Foundation," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said during a conference call.
"The Republicans themselves have spent a generation decrying Supreme Court activism, but suddenly when President Obama points out that this would be activist, there's something wrong with saying that," he said. "It doesn't seem very logical."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), on the same conference call, cited other recent Supreme Court decisions -- the 2010 Citizens United ruling and the Bush v. Gore case that settled the 2000 presidential election -- as a sign that the high court has displayed conservative activism.
Particularly given how those cases played out, Schumer said the Supreme Court "sure looks like a court" that has demonstrated "the very same activism conservatives have decried for decades."
Added Whitehouse, "You might even say corporate activism."
Mike McAuliff contributed to this report.