The White House this weekend rejected Senate Democrats' push for President Obama to do an end run around Congress and raise the government's borrowing limit, saying he won't test the limits of executive power and that it's up to lawmakers to strike a deal.
The move raises the stakes for the negotiations, which haven't begun in earnest even though the federal government could bump up against its debt ceiling in as little as a month.
"There are only two options to deal with the debt limit: Congress can pay its bills, or it can fail to act and put the nation into default," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Saturday. "Congress needs to do its job."
That statement appeared to nix two ideas that had been floated, chiefly in Democratic circles.
One would have Mr. Obama cite the 14th Amendment's guarantee that the debt of the government cannot be questioned as authority for paying bills even beyond the limits set by Congress. The other, seen as a less-likely option, would have had the government mint a trillion-dollar coin, which some analysts said could avert a crisis by boosting the funds in the federal Treasury.
The White House made its move a day after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and fellow Democratic senators sent a letter to Mr. Obama telling him to ignore Congress and claim unilateral powers.
"We believe you must be willing to take any lawful steps to ensure that America does not break its promises and trigger a global economic crisis — without Congressional approval, if necessary," the four top Democrats in the Senate wrote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, also has said she thinks Mr. Obama has the authority to incur debt.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the top Republican in the upper chamber, said abdicating authority to the White House amounted to "the Democratic leadership hiding under their desks."
"Democrats in Washington are falling all over themselves in an effort to do anything they can to get around the law — and to avoid taking any responsibility for Washington's out-of-control spending," Mr. McConnell said.
The government will run out of borrowing authority as soon as Feb. 15 if Congress does not approve raising the debt limit, currently at $16.39 trillion.
If the government does bump up against its debt ceiling, it would have to cease borrowing.
In the first three months of fiscal year 2013, the government has borrowed 32 cents of every dollar it spent. If that rate continues, the government will have to shut down about one-third of all services and benefits.
The tax-increase deal that Mr. Obama and Congress struck this month could help.
Several high-profile Senate Republicans have said the party should brace for a partial government shutdown as a way of forcing Mr. Obama to negotiate spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
Democrats have balked at that arrangement, although they agreed to it in 2011, and were searching for Mr. Obama to gain the upper hand. The constitutional argument was one of those techniques.
Democrats say the debt limit doesn't authorize additional spending but allows the government to pay for obligations as authorized in the annual spending bills or when it set up entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Republicans counter that when the government runs out of borrowing space, it signals a need to take action on the spending side.
The debt limit is just one of the spending-related deadlines facing the country. Another round of automatic spending cuts is looming March 1, and the annual spending bills have to be renewed by the end of March.
Even if Mr. Obama did an end run around Congress on the debt, he would have needed to negotiate on the other two issues.
But Mr. Obama's reluctance to test the limits on the debt is striking given his willingness to push on other areas.
He is fending off a court challenge from businesses and Senate Republicans after he used his recess appointment powers early last year to name members to the National Labor Relations Board at a time when Congress considered itself still in session.
That case has been heard by appeals courts, including a three-judge panel in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, from which at least two judges seemed skeptical of Mr. Obama's use of power.
He also has become the first president to sign legislation remotely by autopen rather than in person.
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