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Updated Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 01:01 PM

Dem leaders urge Obama to play hardball in debt talks

By ROSALIND S. HELDERMAN
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders in the Senate on Friday urged President Obama to consider bypassing Congress to prevent the nation from defaulting on its spending obligations if lawmakers cannot agree to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt ceiling next month.

In a joint letter that served as a warning to congressional Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his leadership team encouraged Obama to “take any lawful steps” to avoid default — “without congressional approval, if necessary.”

The letter appeared to be an effort to push Obama to play hardball in talks with Republicans as the federal government edges up against a legally imposed limit on borrowing.

Republicans have insisted they will not increase the government’s borrowing authority without deep spending cuts, including to entitlement programs. On Friday they rejected the idea of unilateral action by the president.

“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,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Americans “will not tolerate” increasing the debt ceiling without spending cuts.

Obama has said he considers raising the limit — which the nation will hit in February — an obligation of Congress because it d allows the government to pay off debts it has already incurred.

Obama has insisted he won’t negotiate spending concessions in exchange for a higher ceiling.

In their letter, Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., indicate they will support Obama if he moves without Congress. They wrote that the GOP position to block a debt-limit increase unless Democrats agree to cuts in Medicare and Social Security is “outrageous and absurd.”

One option some congressional Democrats have long advocated would involve Obama invoking the 14th Amendment to the 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 experts think that statement means Congress cannot tie the government’s hands to borrow funds to meet obligations the government has already incurred.

The White House has indicated Obama does not think 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 bolster the nation’s assets. The seemingly wacky idea has been gaining traction because of a law that allows the Treasury to mint coins of any value.

Asked recently about the coin, White House press secretary Jay Carney refused to rule it out as an option, though he indicated there “is no Plan B” to congressional action.

McConnell called the coin idea “ridiculous” and accused Democrats of considering “outright abdication of congressional responsibility” to avoid cutting spending.


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