A growing group of Senate Democrats is urging President Joe Biden to seriously consider invoking the 14th Amendment to declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional, a strategy that — if upheld by the courts — could avert a looming default without any concessions to House Republicans, who have used their slim majority to take the debt ceiling hostage.
Sens. Tina Smith (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have been circulating a letter amongst their colleagues this week to collect support for Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment and lift the debt ceiling without any help from House Republicans.
“We write to urgently request that you prepare to exercise your authority under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which clearly states: ‘the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned,'” the draft letter reads. “Using this authority would allow the United States to continue to pay its bills on-time, without delay, preventing a global economic catastrophe.”
As the so-called “x-date” — when House Republicans may push the country to default on its debts — draws closer, legal scholars have pointed out that the 14th Amendment seemingly declares the debt ceiling unconstitutional. It’s an argument that also gained traction during the Obama-era debt-ceiling standoffs, though that Democratic administration ultimately chose not to embrace it.
Now, some Democrats are saying the Biden White House should give it a hard look, arguing that the Civil War-era amendment requires the administration to continue to pay the U.S.’s bills regardless of the early 20th century debt ceiling statute, and Republicans’ 21st century attempts to take it hostage. A list of demands passed by the Republican-controlled House last month includes spending cuts to some of Democrats’ most prized priorities.
Democrats have been insisting for months that the debt limit be lifted or extended without any compromises and that, once the full faith and credit of the country is no longer on the negotiating table, there can be a debate on spending cuts and Republicans’ budget-related grievances. But instead Republicans have been insisting on holding the debt ceiling hostage and using it as leverage to extract political concessions from the Biden White House and Democrats.
The Democratic senators’ 14th Amendment interpretation would rob the GOP of that leverage.
“While we cannot default on our debt, we also cannot allow the destructive Republican budget to be implemented,” the letter reads.
Merkley said it’s “important” for Biden to be in a position to reject House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demands, which amount to an “attack on ordinary working families” and would “unleash fossil fuels on America,” according to NBC News.
Other Democrats have also joined on the calls encouraging Biden to take advantage of the 14th Amendment.
“President Biden needs to consider using the 14th Amendment if necessary,” Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) said in a Thursday statement. “This is the whole reason why the 14th Amendment exists, and we need to be prepared to use it. And, if our unelected Supreme Court Justices try to block the use of the 14th amendment and blow up our economy, that’s on them.”
Sen. Angus King (I-ME) — who is more of a centrist than the other senators who have weighed in — also urged Biden to consider the option “in this situation.”
“I think there’s some very strong legal arguments. The 14th Amendment is pretty explicit,” he told Semafor, before adding he isn’t prepared to weigh in on whether it should completely get scrapped, setting a new precedent for presidents to come.
The idea of invoking the 14th Amendment got a half-hearted stamp of approval from an even more surprising source this week: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO).
“I think if I were president, I would be tempted to do that,” Hawley told the Kansas City Star of the 14th Amendment idea. “Because I would just be like, ‘Listen, I’m not gonna let us default. So end of story. Y’all will do whatever you want to do.’”
“But I’m not necessarily giving him that advice,” Hawley added. “It’s against my interest.”