Hoyer says Dec. 15 is drop-dead deadline to hike debt ceiling

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) argued Monday that Congress must raise the debt ceiling by midmonth or risk an economy-gutting government default.

The exact date that the Treasury exhausts its ability to pay its obligations is an imprecise science, as federal revenues can fluctuate in unpredictable ways.

But Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has most recently estimated the date to be Dec. 15, and Hoyer said he's sticking with that timeline as Congress returns to Washington this week.

"That's not a magic date, as you know. That's a speculated date based upon revenue coming in to the Treasury of the United States, which will determine how solvent they are at any one period of time," Hoyer told reporters on a press call.

"I'm hopeful that we will get that done before - significantly before - the 15th," he added. "But the 15th, I think, is the date that I am using as the last possible day that we could act whether or not that is the actual case because we don't know the revenue flow at any given day."

How Democrats intend to move the debt limit hike is another open question. Hoyer said party leaders have not yet decided if they'll move it as a stand-alone measure or try to attach it to a defense spending bill, which is among the last must-pass proposals left for Congress to consider before the long December recess.

"It's a little bit up in the air," he said. "But what's not up in the air is the sense, I think, in both the Senate and the House that we need to act this week."

Raising the debt ceiling does not allocate new spending but only authorizes the Treasury to make good on obligations it has accrued under administrations of both parties.

Still, the issue is frequently used as a political cudgel, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), after agreeing in September to hike the debt limit for several months, has vowed not to help Senate Democrats a second time this month. McConnell has maintained Democrats are in power and therefore have the responsibility to do it themselves.

That opposition, which is backed by most Senate Republicans, has left Democratic leaders scrambling to find a way to elude a GOP filibuster and move the proposal through the Senate.

The resistance has also infuriated Democrats in both chambers who are quick to note that they helped stave off a federal default on several occasions under former President Trump.

"Sen. McConnell has made it very clear that he believes [a default] would be a catastrophic economic event for the country and for the global community," Hoyer said. "I share that view. I think most rational members share that view. And therefore I am hopeful that we can come to an agreement - hopefully this week."