By Lawrence Hurley and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Chuck Schumer, the top U.S. Senate Democrat, expressed regret on Thursday for remarks he made a day earlier that two Supreme Court justices appointed by President Donald Trump would “pay the price” if they rule in favor of abortion restrictions.
“I’m from Brooklyn. We speak in strong language. I shouldn’t have used the words I did. But in no way was I making a threat. I never, never would do such a thing,” Schumer said on the Senate floor amid Republican demands that he apologize for his comments about Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Schumer seemed to stop short of a full apology, saying instead that the words he used during an abortion rights rally outside the Supreme Court building directed at the two conservative justices “didn’t come out the way I intended to.”
“Of course I didn’t intend to suggest anything other than political and public-opinion consequences for the Supreme Court. And it’s a gross distortion to imply otherwise,” Schumer said.
Fifteen Republican lawmakers introduced a Senate resolution on Thursday seeking to formally censure Schumer for what they called his “threatening statements” and to call on senators to “respect the independence” of the federal judiciary.
At the Wednesday rally, Schumer said the two justices “won’t know what hit you” if they rule in favor of abortion restrictions in a case the Supreme Court was hearing that day involving a challenge to the legality of a Louisiana law that could make the procedure more difficult to obtain.
“I want to tell you Gorsuch, I want to tell you Kavanaugh – you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price,” Schumer said during the speech.
Chief Justice John Roberts hours later condemned Schumer’s comments as “inappropriate” and “dangerous.”
‘DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START’
Trump also blasted Schumer on Wednesday and other Republicans followed suit on Thursday, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I don’t know where to start. There is nothing to call this except a threat, and there is absolutely no question to whom it was directed,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
McConnell said Democrats more broadly are imperiling the independence of the judiciary, pointing to proposals from some on the left to expand the number of justices on the nine-member Supreme Court to change its conservative ideological tilt.
Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, accused McConnell and other Republicans of hypocrisy, noting they had used a “constitutional contortion” to deny Democratic former President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. Due to their actions, Trump instead was able to fill the vacancy with Gorsuch.
“For Senator McConnell to come before us and talk about his respect for the court, keeping politics out of the court, calling it a pillar of the American government, has he forgotten what he did to Merrick Garland?” Durbin asked.
Durbin said Trump’s criticism of Schumer “takes your breath away” considering the president’s record of contentious public statements including criticism of judges.
Most recently, Trump called the judge who presided over the trial of his longtime associate Roger Stone “totally biased.” Trump’s attacks on the judiciary and criticism of the judge, jury and prosecutors in Stone’s trial prompted Democrats to accuse him of trying to politicize the courts and undermine judicial independence.
Republican Senator Josh Hawley, leading the effort to censure Schumer, told the Roll Call publication at the time that Trump “can say what he wants to say. The question is, you know, will it have any effect, and the answer to that should be no.”
On Thursday, Schumer accused Republicans of being “busy manufacturing outrage” over his comments. He said he feels “so passionately” about defending abortion rights even as Senate Republicans and the courts are “working hand in glove to take down” the landmark 1973 Supreme Court Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)