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October 14, 2013

Q&A: What happens if US breaks borrowing limit?

WASHINGTON — Negotiations in Congress to raise the nation's borrowing limit are up against a deadline of Thursday. If the limit isn't raised by then, the government will no longer have authority to borrow to pay its bills.

So what happens if Thursday comes and goes and the limit isn't raised?

The scary thing is, no one really knows. Going past the deadline would be unprecedented.

The possible consequences are complex. But none are good. The gravest threat is that the government would soon fail to make interest payments on its debt. Any missed payment would trigger a default.

Financial markets would sink. Social Security checks would be delayed. Eventually, the economy would almost surely slip into another financial crisis and recession.

Even if the government managed to make its interest payments, fears about a default could cause investors to dump Treasurys and send U.S. borrowing rates soaring.

Here are questions and answers about the government's borrowing limit:

Q. What exactly is it?

A. The borrowing limit is a cap on how much debt the government can accumulate to pay its bills. The government borrows in most years because its spending has long exceeded its revenue. The first borrowing limit was enacted in 1917. Since 1962, Congress has raised the borrowing limit 77 times. It now stands at $16.7 trillion.

Q. When will we reach the limit?

A. The national debt actually reached the limit in May. Since then, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has made accounting moves to continue financing the government without further borrowing. But Lew says those measures will be exhausted by Thursday. The government will then have to pay its bills from its cash on hand — an estimated $30 billion — and tax revenue.

Q. So what happens after Thursday?

A. The government could pay its bills for a few days. But sometime between Oct. 22 and Oct. 31, the cash on hand and tax revenue wouldn't be sufficient, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The date isn't exact because it's impossible to foresee precisely how much revenue the government will receive and when.

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