Congress must raise the debt ceiling before the end of February, and possibly sooner. If it doesn't, the United States risks defaulting on its payments to creditors.
The Treasury Department will run out of options to pay all the country's bills in full sometime in February if Congress doesn't raise the nation's borrowing limit.
That's the key takeaway from a new report released Tuesday by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The group, an independent think tank, analyzed patterns in the Treasury Department's monthly cash flow and obligations to assess just how much time it has to continue paying the country's bills in full and on time if lawmakers don't raise the legal borrowing limit.
The debt ceiling is currently set at $16.394 trillion. By the end of last week, the debt subject to that limit had reached $16.268 trillion.
Treasury has been saying for months that it expects the country to hit the debt ceiling by the end of this year. But it says it can stave off the risk of default until sometime in early 2013 through the use of "extraordinary measures," such as temporarily using federal workers' retirement savings normally invested in government bonds.
Those extraordinary measures can provide about $197 billion of breathing room, which could cover the financing needs until sometime in February, the Bipartisan Policy Center estimates.
The United States doesn't bring in enough revenue to pay all its bills, so it borrows to make up the difference. Monthly deficits typically run between $100 billion to $125 billion.
The February estimate is subject to some uncertainty, the report notes.
What the center calls "the X date" could be moved up to January if the country spends more than expected in the next two months -- for instance, for disaster relief from Hurricane Sandy. Or it could be delayed to March if the refunds typically paid out in February fall well below estimates.
Source: CNN Money | Jennifer Liberto and Jeanne Sahadi