By Alister Bull
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House was forced on the defensive on Wednesday as it sought to explain controversial remarks President Barack Obama made earlier in the week about the Supreme Court's review of his signature healthcare reform law.
"What he did was make an unremarkable observation about 80 years of Supreme Court history," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters during a White House briefing dominated by the topic.
Obama expressed confidence on Monday that the Court would not take an "unprecedented, extraordinary step" by overturning the law, provoking a storm of protest that he had been inaccurate and was challenging the nation's top judges in an election year.
The Supreme Court could decide to reject his Affordable Care Act to expand health insurance to millions of Americans, striking down a key achievement of his presidency and potentially harming Obama's bid for re-election on November 6.
The president, who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, qualified the remark a day later by stressing he meant action by the Court on a matter of commerce, a legal distinction that cut little ice with his critics.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who backs Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination to confront Obama, told Fox News the president was "bullying the Supreme Court," and the White House was grilled on whether he had gone too far.
Legal experts were not persuaded that was actually the case, pointing to instances when U.S. presidents have campaigned against the Supreme Court in the past. But the topic has loomed large in Washington after the Court held three days of oral arguments on the healthcare reforms last week.
During robust questioning, when Carney was told at one point that he had mischaracterized what the president had said, the press secretary was forced to repeatedly defend the remarks of his boss as an observation of fact.
"Since the 1930s the Supreme Court has without exception deferred to Congress when it comes to Congress's authority to pass legislation to regulate matters of national economic importance such as health care, 80 years," Carney said.
A decision by the Supreme Court is expected by late June. Skeptical questioning by some of the court's Republican-appointed justices during last week's arguments has raised the possibility that a central part of the law, requiring most people to buy health insurance, may be struck down. That would likely sink the entire law as a result.
"He did not mean and did not suggest that ... it would be unprecedented for the court to rule that a law was unconstitutional. That's what the Supreme Court is there to do," Carney said. "But it has, under the Commerce Clause, deferred to Congress' authority in matters of national economic importance."
The Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution gives Congress authority to regulate commerce between states.
Republicans pounced on the issue to highlight what they view as the president playing politics with the Court.
"These shallow, preemptive attacks on the Court would be troubling even if the facts supported their claims - and they don't," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress.
However, past White Houses have from time to time weighed in on cases being considered by the Supreme Court.
Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt fought furiously when it threatened his New Deal economic legislation during the 1930s, and even proposed adding more justices to the Court to ensure a majority would back the legislation.
In recent years, Republican President George W Bush insisted the Court had no role to play in reviewing his decision to detain terrorism suspects in Guantanamo Bay prison.
"I don't think it is uncommon for presidents to assert their powers and question the role of courts in a variety of circumstances," said David Cole, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington.
"But at the end of the day, what I think is important, is that presidents have followed the Court's decisions and enforced them, even if they disagreed with them," he said.
(The story was corrected to add first name and title of White House spokesman Jay Carney in second paragraph)
(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Jackie Frank)