A group of Senate Democrats is circulating a letter urging President Biden to prepare to invoke the 14th Amendment to unilaterally resolve the debt ceiling standoff without involving Congress, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Post ahead of its release.
The letter, signed by five senators so far, reflects building unease among White House allies over the direction of negotiations between the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on an agreement expected to cut the deficit and raise the debt limit. Liberal lawmakers have balked as Biden entertains spending cuts and new work requirements on federal aid programs — fueling interest in a solution to the standoff that does not require a deal with McCarthy. The effort comes as House Democrats start to collect signatures for a discharge petition to move legislation that would raise the debt ceiling without any other policy changes, a long-shot procedural move aimed at bypassing the chamber’s Republican leaders.
“The leaders have all agreed, we will not default,” President Biden said on May 17 regarding his meeting with congressional leadership to continue negotiations. (Video: The Washington Post)
The senators’ letter reminds Biden that the 14th Amendment says “the validity of the public debt, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” Lawmakers have just days before a possible June 1 deadline to raise the nation’s borrowing limit. If the cap isn’t raised by the time the Treasury Department runs out of available cash, the nation risks default, which would likely prompt a global economic shock that could send the U.S. into a recession.
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“Republicans have made it clear that they are prepared to hold our entire economy hostage unless you accede to their demands to reduce the deficit on the backs of working families. That is simply unacceptable,” the letter states. “We write to urgently request that you prepare to exercise your authority under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Using this authority would allow the United States to continue to pay its bills on-time, without delay, preventing a global economic catastrophe.”
The letter has been signed thus far by Democratic Sens. Tina Smith (Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (Oregon). Those lawmakers met in the Capitol Tuesday to discuss their plans. More signatures are expected before its release, with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), for instance, also calling for the president to invoke the 14th Amendment on Twitter.
“We are in a situation where these extreme Republicans in the House are demanding completely untenable policies in exchange for not driving the country’s economy off a cliff,” Smith said. “I think it’s important we understand there is another option.”
Despite growing support among Democrats, any attempt to solve the problem without GOP involvement faces enormous obstacles. The Biden administration appears eager for a deal with House Republicans, and White House aides believe there could be huge economic and legal risks in pursuing the 14th Amendment strategy of ignoring Congress. It’s also unclear that the discharge process, which is cumbersome, could be completed before the nation defaults.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) also appeared to dismiss unilateral solutions in remarks on Wednesday on the Senate floor.
“Bipartisanship is needed. It’s the only way to go,” Schumer said in a speech Wednesday morning. “Nobody will get everything they want in these discussions, and I hope nobody — nobody — draws red lines in the sand.”
Optimism around a deal has risen in recent days as McCarthy and Biden delegate top aides to finalize an agreement. Both Biden and McCarthy have expressed hope a bipartisan agreement could be reached before the deadline, which Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has warned could hit as soon as June 1. But major differences remain between the two sides before a deal can be struck, and Biden is leaving the country until Sunday for the G-7 meeting of major economic powers.
In remarks before departing for Japan on Wednesday, Biden said he is “confident” that a deal can be struck on budget issues that would allow a bipartisan vote on raising the debt limit. Biden also said he would hold a news conference Sunday after returning to Washington.
“America will not default,” he said. “It would be catastrophic for the American economy, the American people, if we didn’t pay our bills. To be clear, this negotiation is about the outlines of what the budget will look like, not about whether or not we’re going to, in fact, pay our debts.”
After Biden’s remarks Wednesday, McCarthy sought to put the onus on the president for reaching an agreement and argued he had waited too long to engage in negotiations.
“God forbid you get a Biden default because he ignores the problem, just as he ignored the border,” McCarthy said at a news conference.
GOP leaders noted on Twitter they already had passed a bill that includes an increase in the debt limit — as well as sharp cuts in federal spending, the rollback of green-energy programs and the imposition of work requirements for some recipients of benefit programs, among other provisions.
“The American people know that House Republicans have done their job to pass reasonable legislation to raise the debt ceiling,” the House GOP account said. “We’re all waiting on Joe Biden and extreme Democrats to do the same.”
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who previously characterized the discharge petition as a last-ditch effort, endorsed it on Wednesday in a letter to Democratic colleagues — even as he expressed hope that “a real pathway” still exists for a bipartisan solution.
“It is important that all legislative options be pursued in the event that no agreement is reached,” Jeffries wrote.
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In Jeffries’s letter to colleagues, he asked that all Democratic members “make every effort” to sign the petition Wednesday.
The discharge petition would allow a majority of the House to force a vote on raising the debt ceiling, even if Republican leadership is opposed to the bill. It would need 218 signatures. If all 213 Democrats in the chamber sign on — which is not a given — they would still need at least five Republicans to buck their party leadership. Some Democrats have said they want to see how negotiations unfold and to know the details of the legislation that will ultimately be attached to the petition before they sign.
Even if that attempt were to succeed in the House, it’s unclear a clean bill would advance in the Senate. Republicans there have signaled they back McCarthy’s move to force spending cuts. Most legislation needs 60 votes to advance in the Senate, meaning some Republican support would be needed.
“We won’t support bringing debate to a close on any debt ceiling increase that does not contain substantive spending and budgetary reforms,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who was among Republicans who joined McCarthy at his news conference Wednesday.
At a news conference Tuesday, Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), the chairman of the Democratic caucus, had described the petition as a “break-glass” option.
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Still, Democratic leaders decided late Tuesday night to tell their caucus to sign it to keep the pressure on moderate Republicans, according to two people familiar with the decision, who requested anonymity to share internal discussions.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, introduced the petition Wednesday morning after a phone call in which Jeffries told him to proceed.
Several moderate Republicans have told The Post that while they are open to signing the petition in case Congress and the White House are unable to reach a deal, they are hesitant to support it because the discharge petition does not have legislative language attached that states how the debt ceiling would be lifted.
On CNBC Wednesday, Jeffries underscored one of the sticking points for Democrats as negotiations continue over a bipartisan bill.
“So-called work requirements are a nonstarter,” Jeffries said of the provision in the House-passed bill that would force some aid recipients to work. McCarthy, meanwhile, has said inclusion of work requirements is a “red line” for Republicans.
But Schumer called Tuesday’s White House meeting “a promising step forward.”
“A bipartisan bill in each chamber that can get enough votes to pass in each chamber is the best solution,” he said.
Schumer plans to meet later Wednesday with executives of some of the nation’s largest banks to discuss the debt limit. The session will include JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon and Citigroup chief executive Jane Fraser, Bloomberg News reported.
The administration’s concerns about unilaterally invoking the 14th Amendment have been well-understood internally for months.
Should Biden choose act without Congress, Republicans are likely to challenge the move in court, claiming an unconstitutional extension of executive authority. Regardless of the merits of that debate, officials in the Biden administration worry that investors may insist on significantly higher interest rates to purchase government debt that the courts could invalidate, thereby casting doubt on the prospects of repayment. That raises the possibility of a sharp increase in federal borrowing costs, alongside elevated rates for other loans, which could trigger the same financial market panic as a default would.
Still, for some Democrats, those risks of a deal with the GOP may be greater.
“I deeply admire the work of the Biden administration and their negotiators to try and find some common ground,” Smith said. “But looking at it from my perspective, the extremists from the House better take note that this kind of hostage taking cannot work.”