Democrats have use doomsday rhetoric about a looming government shutdown and comparing the U.S. plight to financial crises in Greece and Portugal. It's all a bit of a stretch.
"We can't do as the Gingrich crowd did a few years ago, close the government," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., referring to government shutdowns in 1995 when Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich was House speaker.
But those shutdowns had nothing to do with the debt limit. They were caused by failure of Congress to appropriate funds to keep federal agencies running.
And there are many temporary ways around the debt limit.
Hitting it does not automatically mean a default on existing debt. It only stops the government from new borrowing, forcing it to rely on other ways to finance its activities.
In a 1995 debt-limit crisis, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin borrowed $60 billion from federal pension funds to keep the government going. It wasn't popular, but it helped get the job done. A decade earlier, James Baker, President Ronald Reagan's treasury secretary, delayed payments to the Civil Service and Social Security trust funds and used other bookkeeping tricks to keep money in the federal till.
Baker and Rubin "found money in pockets no one knew existed before," said former congressional budget analyst Stanley Collender.
Collender, author of "Guide to the Federal Budget," cites a slew of other things the government can do to delay a crisis. They include leasing out government-owned properties, "the federal equivalent of renting out a room in your home," or slowing down payments to government contractors.
Now partner-director of Qorvis Communications, a Washington consulting firm, Collender said such stopgap measures buy the White House time to resist GOP pressure for concessions.
"My guess is they can go months after the debt ceiling is not raised and still be able to come up with the cash they need. But at some point, it will catch up," and raising the debt limit will become an imperative, he suggested.
Republican leaders seem to acknowledge as much, but first want to force big concessions. "Do I want to see this nation default? No. But I want to make sure we get substantial spending cuts and controls in exchange for raising the debt ceiling," said the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Clearly, the tea party types in Congress will be given an up-and-down vote on raising the debt limit before any final deal is struck, even if the measure ultimately passes.
"At some point you run out of accounting gimmicks and resources. Eventually the government is going to have to start shutting down certain operations," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's Analytics.
"If we get into a heated, protracted debate over the debt ceiling, global investors are going to grow nervous, and start driving up interest rates. It will all become negatively self-re-enforcing," said Zandi. "No good will come of it."
The overall national debt rose above $14 trillion for the first time the last week in December. The part subject to the debt limit stood at $13.95 trillion on Friday and was expected to break above $14 trillion within days.
Treasury background on national debt: http://tinyurl.com/4862vxd
Daily debt totals: http://tinyurl.com/yrxrsh
Frequently asked questions about the debt: http://tinyurl.com/69qskf
Government Accountability Office report: http://tinyurl.com/3kw2dr
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