Top political figures are considering the possibility that President Biden could utilize a clause in the 14th Amendment as a last-ditch effort to ward off the threat that the U.S. could default on its debt as soon as next month.
When asked about invoking the amendment, President Biden as recently as Friday appeared to leave the option on the table but told MSNBC he had “not gotten there yet.”
But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sounded the alarm Sunday, saying Biden using the amendment would be a “constitutional crisis.” The 14th Amendment obscurely addresses the nation’s debt, and legal scholars believe it allows the president to continue issuing debts without lifting or suspending the ceiling.
“There is no way to protect our financial system in our economy — other than Congress doing its job and raising the debt ceiling and enabling us to pay our bills — and we should not get to the point where we need to consider whether the president can go on issuing debt. This would be a constitutional crisis,” Yellen said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The Treasury secretary said she doesn’t want to “consider emergency options” and warned that if Congress doesn’t act to solve the issue, “we will have an economic and financial catastrophe that will be of our own making, and there is no action that President Biden and the U.S. Treasury can take to prevent that catastrophe.”
But Biden technically can take action, and White House aides have reportedly looked at the possibility in order to avoid a default.
Lawmakers have insisted a deal to avoid default can only be reached between Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who are meeting Tuesday for the first time since February in an attempt to hash out a deal.
Biden and his administration have spent the past few months insisting they won’t negotiate and want a “clean” debt limit increase, but Republicans won’t budge on the stance that an increase has to come with a promise of spending cuts, though the GOP has been short on details on just where it wants to see the federal budget be slashed.
The impasse has Washington bracing for what Yellen called a potential “catastrophe.” The nation has never previously defaulted on its debt.
The amendment chiefly extended the Bill of Rights liberties to formerly enslaved people but also includes a section declaring, “the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned.”
Some Republicans don’t believe invoking the 14th Amendment is a viable alternative.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), appearing after Yellen on “This Week,” said invoking the amendment is “certainly not a good option.”
“She rightfully said it would be a constitutional crisis, because the Constitution is very clear that spending — all those details around spending and money actually has to come through Congress,” Lankford said.
At a press briefing last week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration won’t “entertain scenarios” when asked if the 14th Amendment option was one being considered by Biden or one that had been brought to his desk.
Jean-Pierre stressed that Congress needs to act — a sentiment the White House voices almost daily and one which was repeated by Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young when asked about the possibility of the move.
“Let me be very clear: Congress needs to do its job. Tomorrow, they could put a bill on the floor to make sure we don’t default. This is of people’s own making. … This is made up drama,” Young said. When pressed on whether the move was on the table, she repeated it’s “Congress’s duty to do.”
Another option lawmakers and the White House aren’t ruling out is agreeing on a short-term fix.
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on NBC’s “Meet the Press” didn’t rule out agreeing to correlating a debt limit increase with the deadline for when federal government spending will run out.
“Is the obvious solution here a short-term punt?” host Chuck Todd asked. “And it looks like this: you essentially raise the debt ceiling through Sept. 30 and make the debt ceiling and the budget deadlines converge.”
“I don’t think the responsible thing is to kick the can down the road,” Jeffries said.
“But we, of course, are open to having a discussion about what type of investments, what type of spending, what type of revenues are appropriate in order to protect the health and safety and economic wellbeing of the American people. That’s a process that is available to us right now,” he said.
Pressed on whether he was ruling out the short-term move, Jeffries said, “Well, we have to avoid default, period, full stop.”