Senate Cancels July 4 Recess to Work on Debt Ceiling

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced this morning that the Senate will stay in session next week to work on raising the nation's debt limit and forgo its usual July 4th recess. The announcement came a day after President Obama accused Congress of taking too much time off.

Members of Congress are “in one week, they're out one week,” said Obama. “And then they're saying, Obama has got to step in. You need to be here. I’ve been here. I’ve been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here. Let’s get it done.”

The debt ceiling must be raised by August 2 to prevent a default on America's debt obligations, according to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Republicans have forced the issue by saying they will not approve an increase in the debt limit without substantial cuts to the nation's current levels of deficit spending. Both parties have come to an agreement that about $4 trillion needs to be cut from deficit spending over the next decade. At issue now is whether that amount should come solely from spending cuts as Republicans insist, or from a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, an approach favored by Democrats.

Obama repeatedly mentioned eliminating tax cuts for corporate jets and oil and gas subsidies as potential sources of new revenue during Wednesday's press conference.

In a statement after Obama's press conference, Speaker of the House John Boehner took exception to Obama's characterization of Republicans as refusing to lead on the issue. "The President’s remarks today ignore legislative and economic reality, and demonstrate remarkable irony. His administration has been burying our kids and grandkids in new debt and offered no plan to rein in spending. Republicans have been leading and offering solutions to put the brakes on this spending binge. The President has been AWOL from that debate," said Boehner.

Republicans have more recently been promoting the addition of a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution as part of a plan to get the nation's fiscal house in order. The House will vote on the amendment at the end of July.

Meanwhile, Democrats have been floating the idea of declaring the debt limit unconstitutional, based upon a reading of the 14th Amendment. Section 4 of that Amendment reads, in part, “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.”

The 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution after the Civil War. Its main purpose was to require states to give “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens, including former slaves. Section 4 was added out of concern that Southerners, once in Congress, would declare debt incurred during the Civil War void.

The idea of declaring the debt limit unconstitutional came from legal scholar Garret Epps, in an article for The Atlantic, and Bruce Bartlett, who has worked for Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, in an article for The Fiscal Times.

The national debt is currently over $14 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office has projected that the debt will increase by $1.5 trillion in FY 2011, which would make it the largest expansion of U.S. debt obligations in its history, after 2009's $1.4 trillion deficit and 2010's $1.3 trillion deficit.

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