Report: Less debt-limit wiggle room in 2013

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In addition, February is usually a rough month for the government when it comes to money going out versus money coming in, as early tax returns seeking refunds will be filed while returns accompanied by tax payments typically do not come in until closer to the April 15 deadline.

When combined with a political calendar that could hold off major work through most of January as elected officials are sworn in, it results in a situation that could be even trickier than the biggest fight of the 112th Congress.

"Last year, we were lucky," said Steve Bell, BPC's senior director of economic policy and a former Republican Senate staffer. "This year, we're unlucky."

Bell said he does not expect Congress will wrap a debt-limit increase in lame-duck session talks on the expiring tax cuts and automatic spending cuts, and that January will largely fall by the wayside as both houses of Congress and President Obama are sworn in.

"This will be a February event," he said.

The BPC noted in its latest analysis that talks over the "fiscal cliff" are also complicating efforts to determine exactly when the government will hit the debt limit, as multiple tax and spending measures are up in the air heading into 2013. Furthermore, the chance for another "wild card," like a supplemental spending bill aimed at helping rebuild the Northeast following Hurricane Sandy, could push up the debt limit arrival date.

The report also analyzed the ultimate costs to the government of the last debt limit fight, which took the nation's finances to the brink, unsettling markets and resulting in the first-ever downgrade of the nation's credit rating. BPC estimates that the 10-year cost of that fight totaled $18.9 billion, which is roughly the same cost as a one-year extension of the "doc fix," which prevents reductions in physicians' Medicare payments. A separate study by the Government Accountability Office released in February pegged the one-year cost of the standoff at $1.3 billion.

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