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Democrats Increasingly Looking to Depend on 14th Amendment for Debt Ceiling Negotiations

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

As the deadline looms closer for when the United States will go into default--according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen--certain Democrats are not so much looking for President Joe Biden to negotiate, but rather to take unilateral action. Such a move would involve Biden using the 14th Amendment, something the president has not ruled out, though he has acknowledged it would end up being litigated.


Nevertheless, Biden did tell reporters on Tuesday at a press conference following his meeting with congressional leaders that "I have been considering the 14th Amendment." Any hesitancy, at least in the moment, seemed to have to do with litigation, rather than whether it was a good idea.

Sunday reporting from The Hill included comments from Democrats like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL), who also serves as the majority whip in the body. "I personally feel that we should test that and I think that the language is very explicit in that amendment," he said when asked about Biden having such authority.

As The Hill explained:

Republicans in the House and Senate have warned against using the 14thAmendment, saying Biden does not have this power and warning of challenges in the courts.

Biden himself has raised the possibility, indicating he’d consider the move — but not without pause.

“I have been considering the 14th Amendment,” Biden told reporters Tuesday after a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House made minimal progress on the debt-limit stalemate.  


The 14th Amendment, passed by the Senate in 1866 shortly after the end of the Civil War, states “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” 

The language was adopted to ensure that the former Confederate states could not attempt to disavow the debts incurred by the Union during the war.  

Durbin acknowledged that using the 14th Amendment would lead to a court challenge and was not an ideal option. But Democrats are also signaling they might rather roll the dice in court than agree to GOP spending cuts — or hope a deal can be reached with McCarthy.


Such a move isn't something that should be considered so lightly, if at all. Yet certain Democrats seem so hellbent on throwing their Republican colleagues under the bus that it appears they're letting such partisan sentiments get in the way of good faith negotiations. 

It's worth reminding that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) plan to raise the debt ceiling while also cutting spending brings the country back to spending levels from fiscal year 2022, something top Democrats cheered at the time. The Democrats' present opposition to the plan is even more shameful given how hypocritical it is. 

As McCarthy reminded multiple times during his Tuesday press conference, House Republicans are the only ones who have put forth a plan to avoid default.

That's not how petty and partisan Democrats see it, though. Chief among them is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). "The 14th Amendment is not anyone’s first choice. The first choice is that the Republicans raise the debt ceiling because the United States government never, ever, ever, ever defaults on its legal obligations. But if Kevin McCarthy is going to push the United States over a cliff, then it becomes the president’s responsibility to find an alternative path," she's quoted by The Hill as claiming. 


"If the alternative is that the Republicans are going to hurtle us over a cliff in which the American economy crashes, we’re thrown into a recession and millions of people are put out of work and our good name around the world is destroyed, then not-great alternatives look like a better option than chaos," Warren also said when asked about whether Biden should deploy the 14th Amendment. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) is also quoted as claiming McCarthy wants a default, with a particularly interesting kind of framing:

“MAGA wants a default. It’s everybody else’s responsibility to prevent one,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), referring to Trump’s allies in the House.  

He predicted that McCarthy would be willing to let the nation default “unless we repeal all the things that we enacted last Congress, which is essentially the same as asking for a default.”  

It's worth noting that not all Democrats believe using the 14th Amendment is such a good idea, or at least they're not willing to be so forthcoming about it. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who appeared on NBC News' "Meet the Press" on Sunday, was asked by host Chuck Todd what he would do if he were Biden.

"Would you start invoking the 14th amendment and start paying the bills now if you were Joe Biden in order to essentially launch the legal discussion about the 14th amendment," Todd asked. "You know, I don't want to give Joe Biden advice, but I think we should do our job. I think that's a precedent to just absolve Congress from being adult," Murphy responded.


Secretary Yellen has also previously acknowledged "there would clearly be litigation around that" if Biden used the 14th Amendment" and that it was "legally questionable."

On Sunday, CNN had Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo on for the most recent episode of "State of the Union." When asked by host Dana Bash "can you just say yes or no whether or not the president has the authority to raise the debt limit on his own without Congress," Adeyemo was unable to provide a direct answer.

Instead, Adeyemo emphasized his belief that "the only thing that can solve our problems now is for Congress to lift the debt limit."

The most direct answer he was able to give, when Bash asked "so, no 14th Amendment," as a follow-up was that "the president's made clear that he doesn't think that would solve our problems now."


As Katie covered last week, Biden has finally signaled he may be willing to negotiate rather than only commit to signing a clean raising of the debt ceiling. A meeting last Friday between Biden and congressional leaders was canceled, but is expected to take place this week. 


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