(WASHINGTON) — With the clock ticking for lawmakers to reach a debt ceiling deal or risk an unprecedented default, several emergency scenarios and short-term fixes are being debated.
A White House meeting between President Joe Biden and congressional leaders on Tuesday, which was the first major discussion between the parties in months, ended without a deal.
Staffers have been meeting daily since then to try to make progress, according to the White House, and the leaders are expected to meet again early next week.
But lawmakers are barreling toward default as early as June, according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, though the exact date is uncertain.
Democrats say raising the debt ceiling is nonnegotiable and argue it should be done without conditions, while Republicans are pushing to tie long-sought federal spending cuts to any increase.
Two potential areas of agreement in budget negotiations appeared to have emerged: unspent COVID-19 money and energy permitting reforms.
But if there’s no deal between Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, here are possible options being discussed to avoid or delay default.
A short-term fix
Lawmakers could agree to raise debt ceiling for a short period of time to avoid default while negotiations continue on federal spending. The issue would most likely be punted until Sept. 30, which is the end of the fiscal year.
Biden this week signaled a possible compromise on unspent COVID-19 money, saying he would consider clawing back those funds as Republicans have proposed — but didn’t say whether that would be part of debt limit talks.
“I’m not ruling anything out,” Biden said when asked Tuesday whether he’d support a short-term increase.
But neither side seems all-in on such a scenario.
“He’s gotta stop ignoring problems,” McCarthy said about Biden. “And why continue to kick the can down the road? Let’s solve it now.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre also said a short-term fix wasn’t the administration’s “plan” either.
Invoking the 14th Amendment
The impasse has raised questions about whether the Biden administration can unilaterally act to avoid default by essentially declaring the debt ceiling unconstitutional.
“I have been considering the 14th Amendment,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday. But he expressed concern it would be litigated and take months to resolve, ultimately not solving the problem fast enough.
The 14th Amendment states, “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”
McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have rejected the idea. “Unconstitutionally acting without Congress is also not an option,” McConnell said.
Payment prioritization, trillion-dollar coin and other tools
Some have said the Treasury Department could prioritize some payments if the debt limit is not increased. The GOP-led House Ways and Means Committee advanced a bill in March that would require the Treasury to first pay all principal and interest on the national debt, then all Social Security and Medicare benefits.
But officials have questioned how feasible payment prioritization is, and economists have predicted it would still likely lead to job losses and higher unemployment
Yellen told the House panel in March that such a scenario was just “default by another name.”
“The government, on average, makes millions of payments each day, and our systems are built to pay all of our bills on time and not to pick and choose which bills to pay,” Yellen said. “It would be an exceptionally risky, untested and radical departure from normal payment practices of agencies across the federal government.”
Another idea floated in past debt ceiling battles and now is the minting of a trillion-dollar coin — or a coin of another large denomination — by the Treasury to keep paying its bills.
Biden revealed Tuesday that his team hadn’t looked into the idea of a trillion-dollar coin as a potential workaround, and Yellen previously dismissed it as a “gimmick.”
“The only responsible path forward here is for Congress and the administration to work together to expeditiously pass a debt ceiling increase. Any scenario that does not envision a passage of a debt limit increase prior to the deadline puts at significant risk the safety and soundness of the U.S. dollar and the U.S. markets and the U.S. economy,” Chris Campbell, chief policy strategist at the financial services firm Kroll and a former assistant Treasury secretary, told ABC News.
“That being said, any serious Secretary of Treasury — which all of them in the United States have been — I’m certain are carefully reviewing their options should Congress and the administration not come to an agreement by the time that the debt ceiling is breached,” Campbell said “In the extremely unlikely event that that occurs, I’m certain that the Treasury Secretary would have a series of options at her disposal to be able to work through the challenges should that occur.”
House Democrats have been laying the groundwork for a discharge petition, ABC News previously reported.
The petition is a complicated procedural tool that would allow members of the House to move a bill out of a committee and bring it to the floor without the support of the majority party leadership.
The petition requires 218 signatures to force a vote, meaning Democrats would need to get the support of at least five Republicans, and timing constraints.
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