President Barack Obama's top Democratic allies in the Senate advised him Friday to consider "any lawful steps" to make sure the government does not default of its debts and spur an economic crisis — even if it means acting without approval by Congress.
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is among those urging Obama to consider options like invoking the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to find ways around the $16.4 trillion legal cap on government borrowing. The amendment states that the "validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned," which some lawmakers believe permits a way out of the debt limit jam.
The government hit the debt limit last month and is juggling the books to buy additional time for Congress to act. But those moves only buy a few weeks of wiggle room, which requires Congress to act — likely by mid- to late-February — to avoid a market-quaking default on U.S. obligations.
The White House has said emphatically that it does not believe that the 14th Amendment permits Obama to ignore the debt cap on U.S. borrowing, though it considered the question during the 2011 debt crisis.
"There is no Plan B. There is no backup plan," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. "There is no alternative to Congress raising the debt ceiling."
The letter from Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., doesn't mention the 14th Amendment, but aides to the senators said that's what they have in mind in urging the president to consider unilateral action.
"We believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without congressional approval, if necessary," the letter said.
Battling House and Senate leaders have made virtually no progress on a strategy for legislation to lift the debt cap. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, insists that any debt increase be matched by equivalent spending cuts. Obama, buoyed by his re-election victory, says he won't negotiate as he did in 2011, when he traded a $2.1 trillion debt increase for tight spending limits on agency budgets and automatic, across-the-board spending cuts if a congressional "supercommittee" failed to reach a budget agreement.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell complained that Democrats are trying to avoid taking responsibility for Washington's out-of-control spending.
"The Democrat leadership hiding under their desks and hoping the president will find a way around the law on the nation's maxed-out credit card is not only the height of irresponsibility, but also a guarantee that our national debt crisis will only get worse," the Kentucky Republican said in a statement.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, said Senate Democrats "cannot ignore their responsibilities for political convenience — and the American people will not tolerate an increase in the debt limit without spending cuts and reforms."
The impasse has people on both sides scratching their heads over how it will be resolved. The anxiety is such that some on the left are urging Obama to mint a coin worth perhaps $1 trillion to be deposited at the Federal Reserve and drawn upon to meet government obligations.