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 calls from Republicans 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.
At the rally on Wednesday, 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 on Wednesday condemned Schumer's comments, saying in a statement: "Justices know that criticism comes with the territory, but threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are 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.
McConnell said Democrats more broadly are threatening the independence of the judiciary, pointing to proposals from some on the left that Democrats consider expanding the size of the nine-member Supreme Court in order to change its conservative ideological tilt.
Senator Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, accused McConnell and his Republican allies of hypocrisy, noting that they had used a "constitutional contortion" to deny former President Barack Obama's nomination of appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in 2016. Because of the actions of Senate Republicans, Trump 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 long record of contentious public statements including criticism of judges.
Most recently, Trump turned his ire on the judge who presided over the trial of his longtime associate Roger Stone, calling her "totally biased." Trump's frequent attacks on the federal judiciary and his comments aimed at the judge, jury and prosecutors in the Stone trial prompted Democrats to accuse him of trying to politicize the courts and undermine judicial independence.
Roberts in 2018 rebuked Trump after the president called a judge who ruled against one of his immigration policies an "Obama judge."
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)