GOP seeks hard deadline on debt

House Republicans are seeking to nail down a hard deadline for the next debt-limit increase by preventing the Treasury Department from buying time.

GOP leaders unveiled a plan to avoid default Thursday that would allow the government to continue borrowing for six weeks while barring the Treasury from shifting money in the so-called "extraordinary measures" that have made the debt-ceiling deadline a moving target.

"The date in the bill is the real date — no more monkeying around," a leadership aide said.

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Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has told Congress that after Oct. 17, the "extraordinary measures" will be exhausted and the government will only have $30 billion in cash on hand to pay its bills.

However, neither Lew nor outside experts have been able to say with precision what day the government would fail to meet an obligation, meaning a default come come anytime between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1.

House Republicans want to lock in a precise date for default in legislation that would increase the debt ceiling for six weeks.  

Exactly how the bill would bar the Treasury from buying more time under the borrowing cap is unclear, but a leadership aide said the end result is to ensure that Nov. 22 will be a hard deadline for Congress to meet.

While Lew has asked Congress to boost the debt limit as soon as possible, Republicans have questioned exactly how long they can fight until action is needed. Having an explicit deadline for action may also hand more leverage to Republicans seeking to extract concessions over the borrowing cap by allowing them to confidently push as far as possible.

The Treasury began using its extraordinary measures back on May 19, after the debt limit again took effect. Congress had agreed to suspend the borrowing cap at the beginning of the year.

The extraordinary measures, nearly exhausted, will have bought the government nearly five months of time. The measures consist of a range of limited options, such as halting investment in some federal pension plans, or shutting down the creation of special securities aimed at helping state and local government navigate debt financing arrangements.

Typically, once the debt limit is raised, Treasury replenishes those measures, as required by law.

Republicans tried to tie the Treasury's hands during the last debt-ceiling increase, including language in the suspension bill aimed at preventing the Treasury from replenishing the measures. However, the Treasury did not have to utilize many of those measures, leaving it ample room under the cap.

Republicans are taking a different approach to preventing extraordinary measures in their new package, according to the aide.

Testifying before the Senate on Thursday, Lew insisted he was not hiding any true deadline, but worked to be "as transparent as possible." Any shifts in a deadline or murkiness on when exactly the government would default are due to the incredible complexity of the flow of funds into and out of the government, Lew argued.

"I have tried to be as transparent as possible for several months because I very much fear a miscalculation is something that could lead to an unintended but very severe consequence," Lew told the Senate Finance Committee. "If you look for the last minute and you make a mistake, you've done serious damage to the U.S. economy and the world economy."