WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats on Wednesday accused their counterparts across the aisle of employing war-like tactics against their own country in threatening to block a hike in the nation's borrowing limit.
The nation already reached its debt ceiling of about $16.4 trillion in December, and the Treasury Department has started taking "extraordinary measures" to continue paying America's bills.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warned Monday that in late February or early March the government would no longer be able to meet all its obligations, prompting a historic default if Congress does not raise the limit. The near default in August 2011 led to a downgrade of America's credit rating.
Democrats Wednesday offered a bill to eliminate the debt ceiling altogether, saying that it has nothing to do with curtailing new spending, but only with authorizing the government to pay its bills. Threatening not to pay those bills, they argued, was akin to threatening to harm one's own country.
"Our Republican colleagues are busily gearing up for battle," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) in a news conference to unveil the bill, the Full Faith and Credit Act of 2013. "The extremists are again intent on blackmailing the country."
"We must not permit an artificial debt ceiling to throw the country into default, and our economy into chaos and depression, which is exactly what the Republicans are threatening to do," Nadler said.
Several of his colleagues put it in even starker terms, pointing out that the debt ceiling had routinely been raised dozens of times before the summer showdown of 2011.
"What was once a mere legislative relic has now been weaponized," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).
The Democrats argue that the debt ceiling is harmful because Congress sets spending levels up front when it passes budgets and so-called continuing resolutions. It does so knowing how much tax revenue is expected to come in and how much money will have to be borrowed.
But the executive branch is not allowed to borrow money that exceeds the debt limit. If Congress decides it no longer wants to pay for the spending it has already authorized, it sets up the possibility of default.
"Raising the debt ceiling is not like calling up a credit card company to increase your credit limit so that you can spend more money," said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.). "It's much more like borrowing to pay for things you already bought."
Republicans are hoping to cut spending by more than Congress and the White House already have over the last two years, and further trim deficits and the debt. Many analysts -- and many Democrats, as well -- believe at least another $1.4 trillion in spending cuts or revenue must be found to stabilize the country's debt.
But Democrats argued that brinksmanship over meeting the nation's obligations only worsens its financial prospects.
"Ironically, these guerilla tactics would probably increase our deficit by sending our economy back into a recession," said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.