The US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has urged Congress to raise the government’s borrowing limit before October 17, warning that a Republican idea to prioritise payments with cash on hand could cause “irrevocable damage” to the economy.
Trying to make such perilous choices between paying veterans or Social Security cheques is not a good option and risks the first default on US debt in history. He repeated the administration’s demand that Congress pass legislation needed to end a partial government shutdown and raise the country’s $16.7 trillion borrowing limit.
President Barack Obama was to meet later with top House Republicans at the White House to seek a path beyond a confrontation that has left the government shuttered for close to two weeks.
“The president remains willing to negotiate over the future direction of fiscal policy, but he will not negotiate over whether the United States should pay its bills,” Mr Lew told the Senate Finance Committee.
Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, accused the Obama administration of intentionally scaring the public and financial markets over the borrowing limit, “in an apparent effort to whip up uncertainty in the markets”.
Mr Hatch said the administration was refusing to “even have a conversation” over reducing the soaring cost of the government’s big benefit programmes such as Social Security and Medicare, the federal health care programme for the elderly.
“If the Obama administration won’t negotiate on entitlements in the context of the debt limit, when will they negotiate on entitlements,” Mr Hatch asked.
Mr Lew said that the government’s payment systems were not designed to allow him to pick and choose which bills. He said the government’s computer systems issue around 80 million payments each month.
“Prioritisation is just default by another name,” Mr Lew said. Default would cause serious damage as outlined in a report Treasury issued last week.
That report, Mr Lew said, “points to the potentially catastrophic impacts of default, including credit market disruptions, a significant loss in the value of the dollar, markedly elevated US interest rates, negative spillover effects to the global economy and real risk of a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse.”
In 2008, a serious financial crisis pushed the US into the deepest recession since the 1930s.