Does Obama have the power to unilaterally raise the debt ceiling?

Some of the president's allies say the 14th Amendment authorizes Obama to borrow whatever it takes to cover the government's bills

President Obama
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The fiscal cliff fight is over, but the looming battle over raising the debt ceiling has only just begun. Republicans, still smarting after caving to President Obama's demand to raise taxes on the rich, are vowing to hold fast against raising the borrowing limit unless Democrats agree to deep spending cuts. Some White House allies, including former President Bill Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, say Obama could avoid a showdown by sidestepping Congress and simply raising the debt limit on his own. "I'd use the 14th Amendment," Pelosi told Face the Nation on Sunday, "which says that the debt of the United States will always be paid." The White House says Obama doesn't believe the 14th Amendment gives him the authority to unilaterally raise the borrowing limit — currently $16.4 trillion. But can the president actually authorize more borrowing on his own if Congress can't reach a deal and he has no other way to keep the government from defaulting on its debts?

If the alternative is default, yes: "Congress has given him an impossible task," says Eric Posner at Slate. Lawmakers want Obama to implement "costly public projects with less money than those projects cost." He has to either push the envelope of constitutionality by defying Congress' power to spend, or by defying its power to determine how much the government borrows. Faced with "contradictory orders," the president should do whatever he believes is "in the public interest."

"The president has the power to raise the debt ceiling on his own"

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Huh? Presidents can't ignore the debt ceiling: Liberals hate the debt ceiling because it's "the last leverage that Republicans have to prevent out-of-control federal spending," says Jonathan Mosely at The American Thinker. But their argument that Obama can simply ignore it is "preposterous." The main reason: The left's favorite clause in the amendment "refers to public debt 'authorized by law.' Debts that exceed the debt ceiling are not 'authorized by law.' Period."

"Obama and the debt ceiling"

Even if Obama can do it, he won't: This is simply not going to happen, says Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. Treasury bonds are supposed to be the safest investment in the world because they have the full backing of the U.S. government. If Treasury sells bonds Congress doesn't authorize, that certainty is gone. We'll have to "blow a lot of money" by offering higher interest rates to get people to buy the debt, and that's reason enough for the White House to "rule it out."

"Not just the 14th Amendment"

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