Senate Democrats to Obama: Bypass Congress on debt limit ‘if necessary’

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). (AP Photo) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). (AP Photo)

Senate Democratic leaders encouraged President Obama on Friday to bypass Congress if necessary to prevent the nation from defaulting on its spending obligations if lawmakers do not move to raise the nation's $16.4 trillion debt ceiling next month.

In a letter, Senate Majority Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and the Senate's other top three Democrats encouraged Obama 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 statement represents a shot across the bow of congressional Republicans, who have insisted that they will not lift the country's legal borrowing limit without deep spending cuts, including to entitlement programs.

Obama has said he considers raising the limit — which the nation will hit sometime in February — an obligation of Congress, and he will not negotiate spending concessions in exchange for a vote on the issue. That has left both sides with little clear strategy or understanding how to proceed in what is likely to be a bitter and protracted fight.

In their letter, Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) indicate that they will support Obama if he moves without Congress, if Republicans "make good on their threat by failing to act" to raise the limit. They say, too, that they would support presidential action without Congress if Republicans "pass a debt limit extension only as part of unbalanced or unreasonable legislation."

One option some congressional Democrats have long advocated for acting without lawmakers would involve Obama invoking the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to declare congressional action unnecessary for raising the limit.

The amendment holds that the validity of the country's public debt "shall not be questioned." Some constitutional experts believe that statement means that Congress cannot tie the government's hands to borrow funds to meet obligations the government has already incurred. The White House has indicated, however, that Obama does not believe the Constitution gives him the right to ignore the congressionally imposed limit on borrowing.

Officials have been less definitive, however, about another route: allowing the Treasury Department to mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin to use to pay off debts. The idea seems odd but has been gaining traction in recent days because of a law that allows Treasury to mint coins of unlimited value. The Treasury Department has declined to say whether it considers the idea an option if Congress does not act. And asked recently about the coin, White House press secretary Jay Carney pointedly refused to rule it out as an option — though he repeatedly indicated that there "is no plan B" to congressional action.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
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