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White House defends solicitor general's performance before court

The White House today defended the performance of its solicitor general during the three-day Supreme Court hearings on the health care law, saying it has “complete confidence” in his abilities.

“Mr. Verrilli is a very talented advocate and a skilled lawyer,” White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said, referring to Solicitor General Donald Verrilli. “He's one of the brightest legal minds in Washington, D.C. And we've had complete confidence in his performance before the Supreme Court.”

Verrilli’s job defending the law’s individual mandate on Tuesday was panned by many critics on the left after he faced a tough line of questioning from many of the justices.

Earlier on Wednesday, the White House released a statement from White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler in support of Verrilli, leading reporters to ask Earnest why the White House would release such a statement if not to defend Verrilli’s performance.

“Because somebody asked,” Earnest responded.

He also said the White House remains confident that the Supreme Court will ultimately uphold the health care law’s constitutionality, noting that several lower courts, known for their conservative positions, found the individual mandate –- the focus of conservative legal opposition to law –- to be within the federal government’s constitutional powers.

“In fact, there have been lower court cases on this very issue, on the Affordable Care Act, where conservative judges have posed difficult, tough questions to Department of Justice lawyers. And at least in a couple of those cases, these conservative judges, despite their tough questions, ended up ruling, ended up upholding the Affordable Care Act,” Earnest said.

But when asked what the administration would do if the Supreme Court does, in fact, overturn the law when it makes its ruling in June, Earnest said the White House has no contingency plans and is “focused on implementing the law, and we are confident that the law is constitutional.”

Other notes from the White House:

  • The Department of Interior today took an incremental step in its plans to expand offshore drilling, announcing that it will begin exploring the environmental impact of doing seismic research in mid- and south-Atlantic waters. But drilling is still a long way off: the plan under which new research is permissible does not include the sale of any new leases to drill off the East Coast. Such leases would not be available for sale until 2017 at the earliest.
  • The White House also declined to comment on accounts from the French government that it is in talks with the U.S. and Britain related to tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Earnest said that while the strategic reserve remains “on the table,” “anybody who tries to convince you in this government or any other government, frankly, that specific decisions have been made or actions have been proposed is -- is not speaking accurately.”