October 6th, 2013
10:39 AM ET
6 months ago

Lew: 'Congress is playing with fire' on debt ceiling

(CNN) – With 11 days left for Congress to vote to raise the nation's borrowing limit, and the government shut down, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew underscored the importance of raising the debt ceiling to avoid dire consequences domestically and around the world.

"On the 17th we run out of our ability to borrow, and Congress is playing with fire if they don't extend the debt limit," Lew said, appearing Sunday on CNN’s "State of the Union” with Candy Crowley.

"We are the strongest, most important economy in the world," Lew said. "We've already seen that with the government shutdown - the kinds of gridlock and brinksmanship in Washington hurts people, and it hurts the economy."

Lew said the United States reached the debt limit in May but that Treasury has been "creating room to borrow using what are called extraordinary measures."

"They've been used so many times that they're not as extraordinary as they used to be," he said.

In a letter to lawmakers this week, Lew said, "If we have insufficient cash on hand, it would be impossible for the United States of America to meet all of its obligations for the first time in our history."

Lew also said he now estimates the Treasury will have less cash on hand to pay the country's bills in mid-October than he previously thought. If Congress fails to raise the borrowing limit, Treasury will only be able to pay the bills that come in with the cash it has on hand, plus whatever revenue comes in.

But what would happen on October 18 if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling?

"We've never gotten to this point," Lew said. "We've never gotten to the point where the United States government has operated without the ability to borrow. It's very dangerous. It's reckless, because the reality is, there are no good choices if we run out of borrowing capacity and we run out of cash."

The government would not be able to pay its bill for the first time since 1789, Lew said, "because of a political decision."

Lew noted in an op-ed in USA Today last week that raising the debt ceiling does not allow the government to spend more, but merely allows the country to pay the bills it already owes.

Lew insisted that President Barack Obama will reach for middle ground, but that negotiations must take place after the shutdown ends and the debt ceiling is raised.

"The president has been, is, and will always be looking for that way to negotiate to find the sensible middle ground. He did it in 2011, he did it last year, he did it this year in his budget where he put forward tough policies," Lew said.

"You look at where we are right now. We've just gone through a couple of months, some very extreme parts of Congress took control. I don't think the leadership in Congress wanted a government shutdown. They ended up with a government shutdown because of the tactics of an extreme group trying to say we're willing to do real damage if we don't get our way."

"The president's message is clear. Congress needs to do its job: They need to open the government, they need to make it so we can pay our bills. And then we need to negotiate, and he is very much prepared to do that."

The government temporarily shut down on October 1, after Republicans in the House held up the passage of a spending bill in an attempt to get changes or delayed implementation of the Affordable Care Act, Obama's signature health care initiative.

Since last Tuesday, House Republicans have turned their focus to passing piecemeal legislation, funding parts of the government. But Democrats and the White House have insisted on a bill that funds the entire government.

Meanwhile, more than 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed due to the shutdown. The House unanimously passed legislation in a session on Saturday to retroactively compensate these workers when the shutdown ends. The White House has said it would support this measure.

According to a CBS News poll released last week, 72% of Americans disapprove of the shutdown, and more Americans blame congressional Republicans than blame Obama.


Filed under: Government Shutdown • Jack Lew • national debt
soundoff (128 Responses)
  1. weedouthate

    As the Chairman of the Weed Out Hate Initiative, an anti-bullying gardening campaign for children, I have traveled the country and the world inspiring kids to root out their bullying instincts by weeding the garden as well as to lobby the White House for a globally televised ‘weed out hate’ mega-event, in which two billion children would be called upon to root out symbolic weeds of hatred.
    What is good for the kids would also be beneficial for the adults and even for those we elect to serve us in Congress. Those representatives who identify themselves as members of the Tea Party might be well served by tapping the roots of the medicinal and spiritual attributes of Tea and might even provide a positive example for the rest of Congress. I believe that the gridlock in Congress is rooted in society’s disconnect from our respective, cultural, historical, and respective spiritual roots. The freedom that we should be seeking is really a spiritual freedom, our choice to rise above our greedy 'weed like' instincts and function as one nation under God. Why not have the members of Congress spend the weekend rooting out symbolic weeds of hatred on Capitol Hill and then making a herbal brew out of the dandelions. The thought of Republicans and Democrats tugging on the same weeds, would be cathartic at the very least, and potential help pull the country together.

    October 6, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  2. Julia

    After reading the comments here I am stunned by the ignorance of the American people. They know nothing about how government works how the bills are passed or how budgets are made for the government. Their ignorance knows no bounds. This strikes fear in my heart as a retiree I count on my small pension and Social Security and if the government runs out of money so do I. Then what? Are is the Tea Party going to pay for my groceries? Can I get food stamps they cut that program too! Are they going to pay the utility bills? This isn't Ignorant Thicket Louisiana where I can grab a gun and go shoot dinner! The Tea Party has to be run out of town and not allowed to come back. Your stupidity is going to ruin or has ruined this country and I'm fed up with ya'll

    October 6, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  3. Christopher Rose

    I have to agree with Obama on this one. Debt ceiling needs to just be done. All the haggling needs to be done in the budget bills. If agreement can't be reached, then we need an automatic continuing resolution. The reason is I think this gamesmanship sets a dangerous precedent in a highly partisan time. It's not a stretch to imagine when or if the Democrats are in the minority them taking this tactic with Republicans and doing the same thing. If Republicans can't pass legislation to their liking then they need to go out and win elections. not resort to blackmail. Negotiation is fine. But they aren't negotiating. They are making give me everything I want demands. And yes I said the same thing about Democrats under BUSH. If you don't like the wars or the tax cuts then go win an election. At least they did not resort to this kind of tantrum.

    October 6, 2013 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  4. griffina

    Lin, not spending more is a reasonable discussion. But deciding you are not going to pay your bills for things you have already bought is not.

    October 6, 2013 08:07 pm at 8:07 pm |
  5. Treatise

    The Tea Party Republicans are the same as terrorists. They are out to destroy this great country because of their own stupid, dogmatic, right wing, ultra conservative Christian agenda. And as terrorists they should be treated as such. They don't care about what the majority thinks. They are out to destroy all the sweeping reforms we have worked for in the past 50 years. Reforms that have brought equality and freedom.

    October 6, 2013 08:08 pm at 8:08 pm |
  6. Sam

    Funding part of the government? If no money after the17th, what will we pay that with?

    October 6, 2013 08:16 pm at 8:16 pm |
  7. Mike

    These tactics are not endearing the Republican party to those in the center like myself. I voted for Bush twice (second time was possibly a mistake, but Kerry was such a terrible candidate) and voted for Obama twice. I definitely believe in the general message of the Republicans as this debt problem is a VERY real and serious problem. The problem is this is not they way to get something done about it. If they put up a REAL solution I could support then great but they only want to go after the low hanging fruit that actually advances our nation. Things like NASA and Education help our country and only save very small amounts of our overall budget. We need to look at our major spending like Defense, Social Security and Medicare. Cuts here are never talked about by Republicans (or Dems for that matter) but are the main reason for our debt problem. Unless they get serious on these I will not take them serious on debt talks.

    October 6, 2013 08:25 pm at 8:25 pm |
  8. Greg

    Psalms 37:21- Hey China can we borrow 100 trillion more dollars?

    October 6, 2013 08:26 pm at 8:26 pm |
  9. hender1123

    Everyone here is correct. To expect politicians to cut spending just because there's no money left is a crime. Just raise the debt ceiling. It's just that easy. Let someone in the future worry about paying the bills. Now's not the time to worry. Oh, and pass some more gun control laws, too. Ignore that fact that these shootings are against the law, just add some more laws. We should strive to be just like Obama's example of life controlled and run by liberals, Chicago. If only the rest of America could be just exactly like Chicago all Obama's wishes could come true. Obama care for ordinary people should not be put off like Obamacare for Obama's friends. People should understand that after taxes there's too much money left in the hands of citizens and Obamacare will take care of all those kinds of problems. And besides, you don't mind sharing all your personal and private information with everyone, to you? Your employers and neighbors have a right to know and if you're being taken care of you have no right to object, anymore.

    October 6, 2013 08:26 pm at 8:26 pm |
  10. Mary1972

    Boehner & Cruz – dumb & dumber.

    October 6, 2013 08:32 pm at 8:32 pm |
  11. Scarface86

    Larry, do you remember when President Obama said it was unpatriotic to keep borrowing money? Where does our borrowing end? The irreversible harm will come from unsustainable debt.

    October 6, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  12. toolttime

    Just when is the panda cam coming back!!!

    October 6, 2013 08:37 pm at 8:37 pm |
  13. Timothy C

    I'm all for getting spending in order, but this is a strange way to go about it. The debt ceiling limit pertains to spending that congress has *already* authorized, not future spending. It's like charging $10K to your credit card and then telling the card company that you don't want them to send you a statement because you're afraid of going into more debt. Problem is, you've already spent the money so if you don't pay on time you'll end up in default. Does Boehner really not understand this or is he playing us for fools? I'm not sure which would be better. Hopefully most Americans will see through this smokescreen.

    October 6, 2013 08:39 pm at 8:39 pm |
  14. TimB

    The GOP still can't believe they were outsmarted by a black guy.

    October 6, 2013 08:45 pm at 8:45 pm |
  15. Mike S

    Congress is starting to plan for the Thanksgiving break. BREAK?? Is it even possible to take a break from doing nothing???

    October 6, 2013 08:46 pm at 8:46 pm |
  16. Mike S

    @ Greg Maybe Canada will co-sign for us.

    October 6, 2013 08:47 pm at 8:47 pm |
  17. JiminNM

    Not really. Congress can direct the Treasury to print interest-free debt-free U.S. Notes just like John F Kennedy did and save the Nation.

    October 6, 2013 08:47 pm at 8:47 pm |
  18. zandhcats

    "Is this how Americans live? If you can't pay you bills, do you really just continually try to increase your credit?"

    Exactly, you got to ask the politicians in Washington why they are favorable to wars, mass tax breaks to the rich, to foreign aids, especially country like China which owns the most cash flows on hands among all the country in the world. Not to mention that the doing nothing Congress only works 126 working days a year with golden parachute benefits and 75% health care subsidize by the federal government.

    Could you name any country spends so lavish like the stupid Americans?

    October 6, 2013 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  19. Todd

    The President doesn't negotiate with terrorists...especially congressional terrorists

    October 6, 2013 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  20. Kimberly

    I just can't believe that there are terrorists in our own government. How can these people be working in Congress, acting as our government leaders, and they are AGAINST government? Despite the vast majority of Americans stating they do NOT want a government shut down or catastrophe for failing to raise the debt ceiling (or come up with a solution that doesn't include another Great Depression), Congress continues to fight against the demands of the majority. It is terrifying that there are people so concerned with their own money that they will hurt any and everyone to look out for big business and oil. They should be promptly removed from office and reprimanded for treason.

    October 6, 2013 09:56 pm at 9:56 pm |
  21. Oy

    Enough–um, that is not how the debt ceiling works. We have to raise the ceiling so that we can pay bills we already incurred! These same temper tantrum toddlers VOTED to spend the money already!

    "Declare States Sovereignty, secede from the Union, and tell WASHINGTON to eat its own debt that it created"

    Oh, yeah, that's a splendid solution. Do you realize that the states get money from the federal govt just to stay afloat?

    October 6, 2013 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  22. blake

    Wrong again! Obama, the Democrats, and the RINOs are playing with fire. We cannot continue to spend massive amounts of money that we don't have without huge negative consequences.

    October 6, 2013 10:19 pm at 10:19 pm |
  23. Kinard

    They don't care. They believe that what they are doing is smart. It's not. Got a feeling we'll all soon find out just how bad this could get. While the chimps running congress skate by like nothing ever happened.

    October 6, 2013 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  24. woodie

    I'm surprised on 72% blame the Republican's for the shutdown. That means 28% don't know what is going on. The republican's want to repeal something that was passed 3 years ago.

    October 6, 2013 11:19 pm at 11:19 pm |
  25. Skyisfalling

    This is extortion by the GOP.

    October 7, 2013 12:00 am at 12:00 am |
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