WASHINGTON -- The White House signaled Thursday that President Barack Obama would not use the Constitution to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling in the event of a standoff with Republicans. But there are plenty of key Democrats who think that wouldn't be such a bad idea.
During his Thursday briefing, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney dismissed the idea that Obama has the constitutional authority to increase the debt limit himself if Congress doesn't do it by early February, when the government is expected to run out of money. The debt ceiling is currently capped at $16.4 trillion.
"This administration does not believe that the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling -- period," Carney said.
Carney said the White House has been consistent in opposing that approach, though he noted "there was a period where this was under discussion" during the 2011 debt ceiling fight. Ultimately, though, the White House dismissed the idea, questioning the legality of that option, he said.
The idea came up last year when House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to pass a bill to increase the debt limit without tying it to matching spending cuts -- a first -- and the country nearly defaulted on its debt as squabbling continued until the very last minute. The standoff resulted in America's first credit downgrade and is projected to cost taxpayers $18.9 billion over ten years.
During that fight, Democrats increasingly urged Obama to invoke the Constitution to raise the debt limit himself. They pointed to Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which 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, they argued that since the "public debt" cannot be questioned, the debt ceiling itself is unconstitutional.
The 2011 fight appears to be back: Last week, Boehner said any increase in the debt ceiling must be tied to spending cuts as part of ongoing fiscal negotiations. Obama responded with a resounding no. And Democrats are once again citing the 14th Amendment as a way out.
Next week, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) plans to collect signatures from his colleagues on a letter to Obama, urging him to use the Constitution to raise the debt ceiling if Boehner doesn't relent in tying the increase to spending cuts.
"As you know, Speaker Boehner has explicitly stated that he will withhold support for raising the debt ceiling as leverage to win concessions in fiscal negotiations with the White House," the letter reads. "In the event the Speaker follows through on his reckless threat, we would support your use of any authority available to you, including the 14th amendment, to preserve America's full faith and credit and prevent further damage to our economy."
Welch told HuffPost on Friday that Republicans are playing "a very dangerous game" by using the debt ceiling to gain leverage in budget negotiations. He said he didn't know what else Obama could do if there continues to be a standoff and he's not willing to invoke the 14th Amendment. But in the event that the president is willing to keep that option on the table, Welch said he'll have plenty of support.
"There's a lot of us who do regard that as an option to protect the economy from reckless congressional conduct," Welch said.
If past is precedent, Welch would indeed have the support of a number of prominent Democrats. Among them, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Md.), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Assistant to the Speaker James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (D-Conn.) and Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), John Garamendi (D-N.Y.), Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Del Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also privately backs the idea, one lawmaker told HuffPost last year.
Perhaps the most notable proponent of the constitutional option? Bill Clinton.
Mike McAuliff contributed to this report.