Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on September 7, 2022.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) listen during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol on September 7, 2022.

(Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Progressive Senators Tell Biden: Prepare to Invoke 14th Amendment to Prevent Default

Frustrated with fruitless negotiations, others are demanding action now—including the head of Groundwork Collaborative, who said that "it's time for President Biden to step away from this slow-moving train wreck."

As negotiations with congressional Republicans over raising the debt ceiling drag on, at least five U.S. senators are circulating a letter that urges President Joe Biden to prepare to invoke the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, The Washington Postrevealed Wednesday.

"Republicans have made it clear that they are prepared to hold our entire economy hostage unless you accede to their demands to reduce the deficit on the backs of working families. That is simply unacceptable," states the letter obtained by the Post.

"We write to urgently request that you prepare to exercise your authority under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution," the document adds. "Using this authority would allow the United States to continue to pay its bills on time, without delay, preventing a global economic catastrophe."

The letter is endorsed by Democratic Sens. Tina Smith (Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Ed Markey (Mass.), and Jeff Merkley (Ore.), along with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). "Those lawmakers met in the Capitol Tuesday to discuss their plans," the newspaper noted, and more are expected to sign on before it is released. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), for example, cited the 14th Amendment in a series of tweets Wednesday.

The 14th Amendment says in part that the validity of the public debt "shall not be questioned," and various legal scholars and members of Congress have recently made the case for invoking that language as the U.S. increasingly faces the possibility of a catastrophic default—with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other experts projecting that the government could run out of money as early as June 1.

The Post pointed out that "the administration's concerns about unilaterally invoking the 14th Amendment have been well-understood internally for months," with aides anticipating a Republican legal challenge as well as the risk of "a sharp increase in federal borrowing costs, alongside elevated rates for other loans, which could trigger the same financial market panic as a default would."

After meeting with congressional leaders at the White House last week, Biden told reporters that he has been "considering" the 14th Amendment but also signaled that any related action would be "months down the road," rather than to resolve the current fight with House Republicans, who are demanding severe spending cuts targeting the working class in exchange for lifting the debt limit.

Progressive lawmakers and advocacy groups have warned against compromising with the House GOP. Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of the watchdog Public Citizen, stressed Wednesday that "the consequences of failing to pay our bills would be catastrophic for the American economy, erasing millions of jobs, triggering recession, devastating retirement accounts, and more."

"We also must not strike a bad deal," she said. "The consequences of a cap to federal spending that goes longer than the debt ceiling is raised are disastrous. Caps are cuts. They slash funding dramatically, weakening our ability to provide essential public services, make needed investments in our communities, and prepare for and react to emergencies—pandemics, climate change-induced disasters, etc.—as a nation. Any cap included in the deal must not extend for longer than the debt limit extension."

House Democrats on Wednesday officially launched a longshot effort to force a vote on a clean debt limit hike without the support of Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), but they would have to convince all members of their own caucus plus five Republicans to back the move. Given the stakes and limited options to avert a default, support is growing for the 14th Amendment path.

"We are in a situation where these extreme Republicans in the House are demanding completely untenable policies in exchange for not driving the country's economy off a cliff," Smith told the Post. "I think it's important we understand there is another option."

"I deeply admire the work of the Biden administration and their negotiators to try and find some common ground," she added. "But looking at it from my perspective, the extremists from the House better take note that this kind of hostage-taking cannot work."

In response to the reporting, Dean Baker, senior economist at the Center for Economic & Policy Research, tweeted that it is "good to see I'm not the only one pushing for the 14th Amendment," referencing his Tuesday blog post on the topic.

As Baker wrote:

So, is Biden also thinking of invoking the 14th Amendment and saying that the government is not constrained by Republican efforts to default on the debt? I can't say. I also can't say what the Republican Supreme Court will do.

But many of us have underestimated Biden before. He managed to get an amazing amount of important legislation through a 50-50 Senate, and with only a narrow Democratic majority in the House. It doesn't seem likely that he would walk into negotiations with a Republican speaker indebted to the party's biggest loons without a backup plan.

I guess we will know the answer on this one soon enough.

Biden on Tuesday held another White House meeting about the debt limit with top Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Ahead of his departure for the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Hiroshima, Japan, the president said Wednesday that "the nation has never defaulted on its debt, and it never will."

"And we're going to continue these discussions with congressional leaders in the coming days until we reach an agreement. And I'll have more to say about that on Sunday," he explained. "As it stands now, the intention is to go to the G7, be back here on Sunday, hold a press conference."

The fruitlessness of the negotiations so far has led some to go beyond the senators' letter, which urges Biden to merely prepare to use the 14th Amendment. Lindsay Owens, executive director of Groundwork Collaborative, argued Wednesday that he shouldn't wait any longer to act.

"It's time for President Biden to step away from this slow-moving train wreck and use the authority he has under the 14th Amendment to avert default," Owens declared.

"McCarthy's demands will only grow as the default deadline approaches," she said. "Swallowing additional spending cuts is tactically foolish and will only exacerbate the extraordinary harms McCarthy's policies will inflict on families and our economy."

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