Treasury Secretary moves up debt limit deadline, pressures Congress to act

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew speaks on the state of the US economy, effects of sequestration and the debt ceiling limit during a discussion at the Economic Club in Washington, DC, September 17, 2013.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew moved up the nation's debt limit deadline to Tuesday, November 3 -- two days earlier than the date he last projected as the day the U.S. would reach its borrowing limit.

In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, Lew urged Congress to raise the debt ceiling immediately, warning that the country's borrowing capacity will likely be exhausted and would begin to have trouble paying its debtors.

"In the absence of congressional action," Lew wrote, "Treasury would be unable to satisfy all of these obligations for the first time in the history of the United States."

Should Congress fail to act, the U.S. would be left with less than $30 billion to meet all of the nation's commitments -- an amount, Lew says, that would be "far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion." Treasury does not "foresee any reasonable scenario in which it would last for an extended period of time."

"Operating the United States government with no borrowing authority, and with only the cash on hand on a given day, would be profoundly irresponsible," the secretary wrote.

Lew had advised in recent weeks that the Treasury's cash balance had already fallen below the "prudent" minimum of $150 billion.

If the debt limit isn't raised before the new deadline, the secretary cautioned that the U.S. could suffer "irreparable damage."

"We have learned from the past that failing to act until the last minute can cause serious harm to business and consumer confidence, raise short-term borrowing costs for taxpayers, and negatively impact the credit rating of the United States," Lew warned. "And there is no way to predict the irreparable damage that default would have on global financial markets and the American people."

The U.S. makes some 80 million payments a month, for Social Security, veterans benefits, Medicare reimbursements, military salaries and more, the secretary reminded Congress.