Why Obama is not talking up a debt ceiling backup plan

January 14, 2013

Ideas about what President Obama might do if Congress doesn't act to raise the nation's debt limit have received increased attention lately.

But Obama's not having any of it; at least, not publicly.


President Obama. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

During a Monday news conference at the White House, Obama ramped up pressure on Congress to act to raise the debt ceiling to prevent the country from failing to meet its spending obligations.

"This is pretty straightforward. Either Congress pays its bills, or it doesn’t," he said.

While Obama was asked about his plans if Congress fails to act before the nation's borrowing limit is reached -- which could happen as soon as the middle of next month -- he didn't offer any details, and instead pivoted back to repeating his call for Congress to act.

Even as potential avenues for actions if Congress fails to act have received more attention, don't expect Obama to discuss the possibilities in public statements anytime soon. Here's why:

1. It would give Republicans instant fodder for a counterattack. The issue now is that GOP congressional leaders want spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit. Obama has said he is not negotiating, and that Congress must allow the nation to meet its obligations.

Unless and until Obama deems that an impossible impasse, any talk of a workaround would only allow Republicans to divert from the current debate and go on offense. Last week, Senate Democratic leaders cleared Obama to act unilaterally, if Congress does not. Some Democrats have tossed around the possibilities of a minting a trillion dollar coin (which the Treasury Department said over the weekend it will not do), or invoking the 14th Amendment.

But don't expect any talk from the White House about last resort methods. When Senate Democratic leaders urged Obama last week to bvpass Congress if they do not act on the debt ceiling, the National Republican Senatorial Committee immediately launched an attack that looped other potentially vulnerable Senate Democrats into questions about a trillion dollar coin. If Obama offered any concrete backup plans, just think of the field day the GOP would have.

2. It would take the focus off of Congress. The main thrust of Obama's news conference, at least on the debt ceiling issue, was Congress, Congress, Congress. He was basically telling Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that the ball is in their court, and so are the consequences for not acting. Talking up his own plans would only ease pressure on them.

During the news conference NBC News's Chuck Todd asked Obama, in no uncertain terms, "Are you considering a Plan B? And if not, why not?"

Obama's response: "Well, Chuck, the issue here is whether or not America pays its bills. We are not a deadbeat nation. And so there’s a very simple solution to this: Congress authorizes us to pay our bills."

And what about the possibility of a government shutdown, which some congressional Republicans have raised? Obama wanted to GOP to own that, too, saying: "Well, ultimately Congress makes the decisions about whether or not we spend money and whether or not we keep this government open. And if the Republicans in Congress have made a decision that they want to shut down the government in order to get their way, then they have the votes, at least in the House of Representatives, probably to do that."

Obama did raise the idea of Congress giving him authority to raise the debt ceiling -- something congressional Republicans have rejected. Absent that, Obama argued, the debt ceiling issue is Congress's to deal with. If Obama were to raise the possibility that Congress could not act, and there might still be away to avoid default, he loses his leverage in urging lawmakers to move.

3. It would fuel executive power grab attacks. Even the idea of Obama acting unilaterally if Congress doesn't raise the debt ceiling is enough to rile up some conservatives to attack the president for overreaching. Being thrust into that kind of argument before the ceiling is hit is not helpful to the president, nor is it helpful to vulnerable Democrats in Congress who face tough reelection bids in 2014 -- and whose votes the president will be counting on.

To be clear, just because Obama is not talking about a backup plan doesn't mean he does not have one. But, just don't expect to hear much talk from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. about the matter until all other options are exhausted.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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