Senate Democrats want President Obama to "take any lawful steps" to allow the Treasury to pay U.S. debt obligations if the debt limit isn't raised, "without Congressional approval, if necessary." Of course, there is controversy over whether any steps Obama could take to pay bills owe would be lawful. Unfortunately, you can make the case that doing nothing is unlawful, too.

In a letter to the president posted by Politico, Sens. Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer, and Patty Murray say this is what Obama needs to do if Republicans won't raise the debt ceiling or if they agree to raise it "only as part of an unbalanced or unreasonable legislation," meaning a bill with more spending cuts and fewer tax revenue than Democrats want. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell responded by saying Democrats are "hiding under their desks and hoping the President will find a way around the law." Obama has several slightly-crazy-sounding options at his disposal if the debt limit isn't raised by the mid-February deadline. Those are:

  • Declare the debt limit unconstitutional based on the 14th Amendment
  • Mint a $1 trillion coin and deposit it at the Federal Reserve
  • Issue federal I.O.U.s that can be redeemed for cash when the manufactured crisis is over

In the October 2012 Columbia Law ReviewNeil Buchanan and Michael Dorf argue that the "least unconstitutional" option is the 14th Amendment one, and Republicans have threatened to impeach him over it. Yet that is the one option Obama has ruled out. The White House hasn't committeed to any other second options, but he can't do nothing, either, as John Dean points out. Obama is legally obligated to enact the laws that require spending beyond the debt limit, Buchanan and Dorf argue. Not paying our debts would violate that. So Obama could theoretically be impeached for doing nothing, too.