WASHINGTON -- With time running out and still no bipartisan debt deal in sight, a growing number of House Democrats are pressuring President Barack Obama to use a constitutional option they say would allow him to raise the debt ceiling himself.
"We believe that the president should invoke the 14th Amendment," Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday.
During a press conference, Engel said he "doesn't take lightly" the ceding of power from the legislative branch to the executive branch. But given the partisan logjam in Congress and the extraordinary potential consequences of default, he said Obama should lean on the Constitution as a last resort.
"The debt ceiling must be lifted," said Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), also at the press conference. "And if that is the only way to get it done, then Mr. President, do it. And we and many more Members will stand with you."
Other Democrats, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), John Garamendi (Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), are also calling on Obama to step in to resolve the debt crisis if Congress can't reach a deal by August 2, when the government is expected to run out of money to pay its bills and begin to default.
"Our president, we believe, has the [ultimate] power to solve this," Garamendi said. "We hope he doesn't have to use it."
The provision at the heart of the constitutional debate, Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, states: “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” Essentially, Democrats are arguing that since the "public debt" cannot be questioned, then the debt ceiling itself is unconstitutional.
The White House insists the constitutional approach is off the table, citing legal concerns with the president's authority to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling.
"There are no off-ramps. There’s no way around this. There’s no escape," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "Only Congress has the legal authority to extend that borrowing authority. That’s our position."
But some on Capitol Hill beg to differ — and Democratic momentum for the constitutional approach has only increased as the clock runs out. House Democratic leaders on Wednesday unexpectedly threw their support behind the option after a caucus meeting.
"I am convinced that whatever discussions about the legality of that can continue," Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said. "But I believe that something like this will bring calm to the American people and will bring needed stability to our financial markets."
The idea for using the Constitution to resolve the standoff is nothing new: Over the course of the last several months, several commentators have urged the administration to explore the 14th Amendment option. In late June, HuffPost reported that Senate Democrats were actively discussing it as an option and giving it increasing consideration as the difficulty of reaching a compromise became more evident. Two days later, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner read the 14th Amendment out loud to a group of journalists, seemingly implying it was a viable option.
NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Obama about the constitutionality of the debt ceiling at a briefing the day after HuffPost’s initial report. The president dodged the question at the time, but has since said that White House lawyers “are not persuaded that that is a winning argument.”
Engel speculated that Obama's resistance to the option may fade if it becomes apparent that Congress can't reach a deal by August 2.
"We still have five days," the New York Democrat said. "If we see the days are going by and we're faced with August 2 and we have no other alternative but default, I think the president then will have a change of mind."
"Invoking the 14th Amendment may be the only way out of this crisis," he added.