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Senate Dems urge Obama to act on U.S. debt

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's top Democratic allies in the Senate advised him Friday to consider "any lawful steps" to avoid a government default on its debts and the economic shock that would result -- even if it means acting without approval by Congress.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is among those urging Obama to consider options like invoking the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to find ways around the $16.4 trillion legal cap on government borrowing. The amendment states that the "validity of the public debt of the United States . . . shall not be questioned," which some lawmakers believe permits a way out of the debt limit jam.

The government hit the debt limit last month and is juggling the books to buy additional time for Congress to act. But those moves only buy a few weeks of wiggle room, which requires Congress to act -- likely by mid- to late February -- to avoid a market-quaking default on U.S. obligations.

The White House has said emphatically it does not believe the 14th Amendment permits Obama to ignore the debt cap on U.S. borrowing, though it considered the question during the 2011 debt crisis.

The letter from Reid and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) doesn't mention the 14th Amendment, but aides to the senators said that's what they have in mind. "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 letter said.

Battling House and Senate leaders have made virtually no progress on a strategy for legislation to lift the debt cap. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) insists that any debt increase be matched by equivalent spending cuts.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) complained Friday that Democrats don't want to take responsibility for out-of-control spending. "The Democrat leadership hiding under their desks and hoping the president will find a way around the law on the nation's maxed-out credit card is not only the height of irresponsibility, but also a guarantee that our national debt crisis will only get worse," he said in a statement.

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