White House won’t sidestep Hill on debt ceiling

Carney: Power to raise borrowing limit is legislative

Even with year-end budget talks at a standstill, the White House said Thursday it will not do an end-run around Congress and claim constitutional powers to raise the debt ceiling on its own.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Mr. Obama thinks that only Congress can raise the debt ceiling — the legal limit on how much the U.S. Treasury can borrow.

He shot down an argument that’s gained traction among liberal advocates and some Democrats on Capitol Hill that the Constitution already guarantees all federal debt, so the borrowing ceiling is irrelevant.

“The administration does not believe the 14th Amendment gives the president the power to ignore the debt ceiling — period,” Mr. Carney said.

His words come as all sides are negotiating to head off the “fiscal cliff” — the looming expiration of tax cuts and imposition of automatic spending cuts. The $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, which the federal government will hit at the end of this year, has become a new focal point in the conversations.

After analysts said last year’s brinkmanship put the government on the edge of default, Mr. Obama has called for Congress to turn over debt authority to him altogether.

On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, proposed to hold a vote on that proposal — apparently hoping enough Democrats would vote against it that it would embarrass the president.

But hours later, Senate Democrats agreed to hold a vote, forcing Mr. McConnell to filibuster his own proposed vote.

“This morning, the Republican leader asked consent to have a vote on this proposal. Now I told everyone that we are willing to have that vote, up-or-down vote. Now the Republican leader objects to his own idea. So I guess we have a filibuster of his own bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the chamber’s top Democrat.

Mr. McConnell countered that big issues like this one always take 60 votes to pass the Senate, so it wasn’t unusual to hold it to that standard.

Right now the government’s debt stands at $16.3 trillion and will bump up against the limit later this month, although the Treasury Department has tools it can use to delay crossing the line through early next year.

Republicans want Mr. Obama to agree to deeper spending cuts in exchange for them allowing more debt authority — the same deal they struck last summer.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, argues that any increase in the debt limit must again be matched by greater amounts of deficit reduction.

But the president warned Republican leaders not to go down that road. The 2011 fight sent stocks plunging and prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. credit rating, he said.

During remarks to corporate CEOs at the Business Roundtable on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said he would not “play that game again,” arguing that another debt-ceiling fight would be a “catastrophe” for the nation.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner in an interview on CNBC on Wednesday echoed the president’s words.

“We are not prepared to have the American economy held hostage to periodic threats that Republicans will force the country to default on our obligations,” he said.

Instead, the White House wants to make permanent a system used during last year’s $2.2 trillion debt-limit hike. Designed by Mr. McConnell, the mechanism requires the president to submit a formal notice to Congress of the need to lift the debt ceiling.

Congress can allow the borrowing to increase by doing nothing, or it could pass a resolution of disapproval, which the president has the power to veto.

But Mr. McConnell said Republicans would fight any attempt to cement last year’s one-time method into permanent law, calling it a “power grab that has no support here.”

Last year, Republicans conceded to the one-time debt-limit mechanism only because the White House signed off on spending cuts that nearly equated the increase in the debt ceiling, but Mr. Obama, running on the momentum from his re-election, says he’s not willing to agree to such a scenario this time.

With both sides digging in, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, said he wouldn’t dismiss the constitutional option as quickly as the White House had.

“I don’t think they ought to rule it out,” Mr. Durbin said. “After the Congress has voted to incur the debt, after the votes are on the record, to ask to borrow the money to pay that debt is obviously a reasonable conclusion.”

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