Progressive lawmakers renewed their call for President Joe Biden to bypass Congress to avert a default after the abrupt cancellation of debt ceiling talks on Friday.
But the White House remains resistant. It issued a subdued statement indicating it sees no reason to pull the plug on talks. And privately, its message has been even blunter.
Senior Biden officials have told progressive activists and lawmakers in recent days that they do not see the 14th Amendment — which says the “validity of the public debt” cannot be questioned — as a viable means of circumventing debt ceiling negotiations. They have argued that doing so would be risky and destabilizing, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The White House has studied the issue for months, with some aides concluding that Biden would likely have the authority to declare the debt limit unconstitutional as a last-ditch way to sidestep default. But Biden advisers have told progressives that they see it as a poor option overall, fearing such a move would trigger a pitched legal battle, undermine global faith in U.S. creditworthiness and damage the economy. Officials have warned that even the appearance of more seriously considering the 14th Amendment could blow up talks that are already quite delicate.
“They have not ruled it out,” said one adviser to the White House, granted anonymity to speak candidly about discussions. “But it is not currently part of the plan.”
The administration’s deep skepticism of the 14th Amendment as a workable off-ramp further heightens the stakes surrounding the debt ceiling talks, after negotiators walked away from the table on Friday.
The White House acknowledged that the two sides had hit an impasse, and Republicans cited disagreements over the level of spending restrictions as a major sticking point. But the president’s team reiterated the need to eventually find an agreement.
“There are real differences between the parties on budget issues and talks will be difficult,” a White House official said. “The president’s team is working hard toward a reasonable bipartisan solution that can pass the House and the Senate.”
Biden himself has said that he sees a bipartisan deal as the only option to the current standoff, casting doubt on the 14th Amendment as workable in public remarks. But the private resistance being registered by his aides has frustrated progressives who worry the president is too readily giving up his leverage. It also threatens to fracture months of party unity behind Biden’s debt ceiling strategy, exposing the White House to increasingly vocal criticism just as it enters the final stage of its high-stakes standoff with the GOP.
“I think Biden is actually flirting dangerously with a backlash among his own supporters,” said Robert Hockett, a Cornell University law professor close to progressive lawmakers who has advocated for ways that Biden can take unilateral action.
Top White House aides have largely dismissed the rising angst among progressives and other allies who feel left out of debt talks. Instead, the administration has effectively gone all in on a debt ceiling-and-budget agreement with Republicans that officials hoped to finalize as early as Sunday, the people familiar with the discussions said.
That would allow Biden to clinch the deal shortly after returning from the G-7 Summit in Japan, and give congressional leaders in both parties several days to lock down the votes needed to push through a debt ceiling increase.
But momentum appeared to slow on Friday, after negotiators broke camp without plans for a next sitdown.
“We’ve decided to press pause, because it’s just not productive,” Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said as he walked out of the meeting.
The immediate reaction in the White House was muted, with aides wary of making any public statement that Republicans could use to claim Biden was no longer working in good faith. Some close observers of the process saw it as an inevitable snag rather than a sign of impending doom.
“I can only conclude that these are the usual stumbling blocks that take place right before any agreement is reached,” said G. William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a veteran of decades of budget battles.
But in some corners of the Democratic Party, the setback only re-energized calls for a fallback option.
“We urge you to ready the use of all possible measures at your disposal — including preparing to invoke the Constitution’s 14th Amendment,” the 65 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote in a Friday letterthat warned Biden against “surrendering” to the GOP’s demands. “Stay strong in your resolve to keep Democrats united behind our core democratic values and refuse to reward Republicans’ reckless refusal to raise the debt ceiling without preconditions.”
The letter led by CPC Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) came a day after 11 Senate Democrats issued a call of their own for the White House to weigh the 14th Amendment, writing that GOP demands for concessions on spending — and their opposition to any tax increases — have “made it seemingly impossible to enact a bipartisan budget deal.”
“This is a hostage taking,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “The president has a mechanism to push back. He has the 14th Amendment.”
House Democrats this week separately began gathering signatures on a long-shot discharge petition to force a clean debt ceiling vote.
“Kevin McCarthy does not know how many votes he has,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told POLITICO Playbook in an interview. “He can’t even go to the White House and say, ‘If you give me this, I will have X votes; if you give me that, I’ll have Y votes.”
Privately, the White House shares some of the progressives’ anxiety that McCarthy will balk at the last minute, or prove unable to sell his conference on whatever deal is reached. But officials believe they have no choice but to forge ahead.
Biden aides have bet that a bipartisan agreement on new spending restrictions will ultimately be seen as a worthwhile tradeoff if it means protecting the major investments spurred by the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act that underpin Democrats’ economic vision.
“This is a president that they could be reassured is fighting for clean energy, is fighting for manufacturing, is fighting for health care,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday in response to progressives’ concerns.
White House negotiators are advocating for a pact that lifts the debt ceiling into 2025 and caps spending for as little as two years, at levels substantially higher than the 22 percent across-the-board cut initially sought by Republicans. The two sides are also discussing clawing back billions of dollars in unspent Covid aid and an agreement on energy permitting reforms.
But the GOP’s envoys were still pushing for more ahead of Friday’s interruption, the people familiar with the discussions said, such as lengthening the spending caps beyond two years. Republican lawmakers also now say some level of work requirements for safety net programs must be a part of the deal.
The White House, in private conversations with allies, has downplayed the odds it will agree to any new work rules. Still, Biden’s unwillingness to publicly rule it out inflamed progressives who already harbored doubts about the White House’s strategy.
After Biden first appeared to open the door to work requirements for programs other than Medicaid last Sunday, officials spent hours trying to tamp down alarm among progressive advocates and lawmakers that he would agree to restrictions on food aid and cash assistance. But that work was undone early the next day, when a tweet from Biden’s account went out mentioning only his vow to protect Medicaid.
The tweet, which was pre-scheduled, set off another round of panic and prompted the White House to issue a second tweet later in the day explicitly criticizing Republicans’ demands on food aid, according to two people familiar with the previously unreported episode.
Progressives’ widespread concerns about the debt ceiling talks have since broken into the open, fueling the renewed push for Biden to stick to his original vow of a clean debt ceiling hike or the use of the 14th Amendment rather than give in to any Republican demands.
The White House remains unmoved. And officials there aren’t alone.
David Kamin, who served as an economic adviser in both the Obama and Biden White Houses, said that invoking the 14th Amendment might technically avert a default — but would do little to protect the U.S. from the subsequent fallout.
“I don’t think we should kid ourselves about the damage that would be imposed on the economy and the credibility of the United States,” he said. “That is not a position the government should be put in.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.