By Jonathan Easley - 03/02/12 09:25 PM EST
President Obama called the Georgetown University law student targeted by Rush Limbaugh on Friday as Democrats sought to turn the conservative talker’s comments against the GOP.
Obama’s decision to call the student highlights the political gold Democrats believe they have found in Limbaugh’s comments, which they think could draw female voters to Obama and their party in the fall.
Obama told Georgetown student Sandra Fluke she had been the subject of “inappropriate personal attacks” after Limbaugh referred to her as a “slut” and a “prostitute” during his show on Wednesday because of her testimony last week about the healthcare law’s contraception mandate.
White House press secretary Jay Carney called the remarks "reprehensible" and "disappointing."
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) took the unusual step Friday of criticizing Limbaugh for the remarks, though he also criticized Democrats for seeking to raise funds off of the controversy.
The Speaker “obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate, as is trying to raise money off the situation,” a Boehner spokesman said.
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also criticized the comments, saying, "It's not language the majority leader would condone."
GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum labeled Limbaugh as "absurd" for using strong language to criticize Fluke.
"He's being absurd, but that's you know … an entertainer can be absurd," Santorum said Friday on CNN. "He's in a very different business than I am."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office declined to comment on Limbaugh’s remarks.
The White House initially took political heat over a contraception mandate, under which employers' insurers provide birth control to their employees without a co-pay, from critics who said it was a violation of religious liberty. Under pressure, Obama announced an “accommodation” meant to allow exceptions from the mandate for Catholic hospitals and other religiously affiliated groups.
Critics said that accommodation didn’t go far enough, but the White House move made it more difficult for Republicans to frame the debate over religious freedom. Since then, missteps by Republicans and now Limbaugh’s comments have shifted the national debate into a fight about contraception and women’s rights.
Fluke was about to appear on an MSNBC talk show when she received the call from Obama. “He encouraged me and supported me and thanked me about speaking out about the concerns of American women,” Fluke told the network’s Andrea Mitchell. “He said I should tell my parents that they should be proud.”
Carney said Obama “expressed his appreciation for her willingness to stand tall and express her opinion."
"I think he, like a lot of people, feels that the kinds of personal attacks that have been directed her way are inappropriate," Carney said. "The fact that our political discourse has become debased in many ways is bad enough. It's worse when it's directed at a private citizen who was simply expressing her views on a matter of public policy."
Fluke first entered the debate when she was not allowed to testify at a House Oversight Committee hearing last month. The move by Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) backfired after photos of the initial all-male panel of witnesses at the hearing went viral and sparked a segment on “Saturday Night Live.”
Democrats then held their own hearing a week later, featuring Fluke’s full testimony.
Limbaugh first criticized Fluke during his show on Wednesday, and then doubled down on Thursday, saying Georgetown students are apparently “having so much sex they’re going broke.”
Channeling earlier comments by Foster Freiss, a major donor to the super-PAC supporting GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Limbaugh said: “I will buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want.”
Limbaugh also suggested Fluke should videotape her sexual activities and post them online for people to see since taxpayers would be paying for her contraception through the mandate.
House Democrats have pounced on the issue, pressuring Boehner and other GOP leaders to rebuke Limbaugh, one of the most powerful conservative voices in the country.
They have also sought to raise money on the issue. Even before Limbaugh jumped into the fray, House Democrats had raised more than $1 million off of the controversy. And they’ve stepped up their campaign since Limbaugh launched his initial attack. House Republicans' campaign committee also used the contraception controversy in its fundraising pitches.
Limbaugh has also been criticized by opponents of the mandate.
Georgetown University, a Catholic institution that is opposed to the controversial Obama administration measure, came out in support of Fluke against the "misogynistic" and "vitriolic" discourse.
“She was respectful, sincere, and spoke with conviction. She provided a model of civil discourse. This expression of conscience was in the tradition of the deepest values we share as a people,” Georgetown University President John DeGioia said in a statement.
“One need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression. And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position — including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels — responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student,” he said.
—This story was posted at 1:45 p.m. and was last updated at 4:25 p.m.
Amie Parnes and Sam Baker contributed.