Larson: House Democrats back 14th Amendment “fail-safe” in debt standoff

WASHINGTON-House Democrats are urging President Barack Obama to use an untested legal option  to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling if congressional Republicans don’t agree on a long-term plan to stave of U.S. default in the coming days.

“We’re getting down to decision time,” Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, told reporters after a closed-door meeting with the Democratic caucus. “We have to have a fail-safe mechanism. We believe that fail-safe mechanism is the 14th Amendment and the president of the United States.”

Included in the 14th Amendment is a little-known provision that dates back to the end of the Civil War. It states that the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

It was crafted to guarantee that Union debts would be paid after the Civil War. But some legal scholars have suggested the amendment–in particular those last four words stating that the validity of public debt “shall not be questioned”–gives Obama the authority to raise the debt ceiling on his own, without congressional approval. Others have disputed that, and the debate has played out mostly among law professors and legal theorists watching Washington’s political paralysis from the sidelines.

But Larson and other House Democrats thrust it into the spotlight today, saying it’s a legitimate, live option that the president should consider–even though Obama himself has already said he doesn’t want to go that route. Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the caucus embraced the idea of pushing Obama to use the 14th Amendment as a fall-back plan if no acceptable agreement emerges from the House or Senate in the next few days.

“Jim Clyburn brought it up,” Larson said, referring to the Democrat’s No. 3 leader, a congressman from South Carolina. “He got a great round of applause.”

Larson and others explained that they only think Obama should invoke the 14th Amendment if he’s presented with an unacceptable debt-ceiling plan–one that includes a short-term hike in the debt ceiling and that will extend the economic uncertainty now hanging over the country.

“The Republicans have taken us into the twilight zone,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif, the caucus vice chairman. “We’ve never been here before.

“What we’re saying to the president is… ‘The Republicans, through their failure, have given you license to do whatever it takes to not let the American family go down into that abyss’,” he added.

The House Democrats’ decision to highlight the constitutional option comes as the gridlock in Congress seemed to intensify over the last 24 hours. On Monday, House Speaker John Boehner outlined a debt-reduction plan that would pave the way for an increase in the debt ceiling in a two-stage process.

But the White House threatened to veto that measure, and Boehner has not even been able to rally his own GOP conference around it. GOP leaders pulled the measure from a planned House vote today, as Boehner tried to shore up support from House Republicans. GOP leaders have said they would put it to a vote Thursday.

In the Senate meanwhile, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has also put forward a plan that would raise the debt ceiling by $2.7 trillion and make a corresponding level of cuts. But he has not scheduled that proposal for a full Senate vote, a sign that he doesn’t have the 60 votes needed yet to overcome a possible Republican filibuster.

Reid said at a press conference Wednesday that even if Boehner’s plan passes the House, it will fail in the Senate. “Every Democratic senator will vote against it, whether we get it tonight or the next day or Friday,” Reid said.

Still, he said he would wait to see how things unfold in the House before scheduling a Senate debate on his own measure.

Larson said House Democrats would overwhelmingly support the Reid plan if it came up for a vote in that chamber. “A Harry Reid plan would probably pass here with more than 180 Democratic votes to go to the president,” Larson said.

But it’s unclear if the House GOP leaders would bring it up for a vote, Larson noted. And as the uncertainly and paralysis continues, the 14th amendment option needs to be front and center.

“We don’t know what the other side is going to do,” Larson said, referring to House Republican disarray over their own debt-ceiling plan. “They’ve walked away from everything, including their own leader’s proposal.”

Obama has said he doesn’t want to invoke the 14th Amendment. He said his lawyers have looked and it and they don’t think it’s a “winning argument.”

Larson acknowledged the White House’s opposition. But, he said, “circumstances could change. We just want to let him to know that his caucus is prepared to stand behind him” if he invokes the clause.

Others in the Connecticut delegation expressed unease and uncertainty about the idea of a constitutional option.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, said it’s unclear how the courts might react to that kind of legal move. “I also don’t know how the markets might treat it, and that in some ways is more of a concern,” Himes said. The former Goldman Sachs investment banker said that if Obama uses a questionable legal tactic to keep the U.S. from defaulting, it might not provide the kind of economic certainty that Wall Street is looking for from Washington.

“It’s not clear to me that the markets, under these circumstances, would regard U.S. debt as truly clean,” he said. “So I view this as a standby in the event of abject failure on the part of the Congress to do what it should have done a long time ago.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and longtime state attorney general, said it’s not a clear-cut issue but should not be ruled out.

“It’s a constitutional question that would require some study, but it is an open question,” he said. “I wouldn’t rule it out automatically. It might be something that arguably could be done in the face of genuine crisis, in the face of catastrophe.”

Reid, for his part, demurred about whether the White House should take another look at the 14th amendment as the deadlock in Congress continues. “That’s up to them,” Reid said. “I’m not going to be giving them advice on a legal issue.”