March 28, 2011 -- As Congress turns its attention to the budget and the country's fiscal situation, the debt ceiling debate that has been simmering underneath the surface could come to a boil in the near future.
The Treasury Department estimates that the United States will reach its debt limit between April 15 and May 31. Administration officials are ringing alarm bells and warning of dire consequences if the $14.3 trillion ceiling isn't raised.
But Republican lawmakers say they won't commit to such a move until President Obama takes bold steps in tackling entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security that are weighing down the country's pocketbook.
"Republicans in the Senate will not be voting to raise the debt ceiling unless we do something significant about the debt," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier this month. "I don't think he has to lay out in public exactly what he's willing to do, but we need to begin serious discussions, and time's a wasting."
Senate Republicans reportedly are working on a Balanced Budget Amendment, a Constitutional amendment that would require a balanced budget every year, as a condition to raising the debt ceiling.
While the debate over the debt limit and budget is taking place far from the purview of most Americans, its repercussions can be significant.
Raising the debt limit doesn't mean the federal government will be allowed to spend more. Rather, it's a tool to allow Treasury to make payments to vendors under the budget passed by Congress.
If the debt ceiling is not raised, the Treasury may not be able to make payments to agencies, which could result in delayed Social Security and Medicare checks. The Treasury has mechanisms in place that could delay the negative ripple effects for some time, and experts say the two parties are likely to come to a resolution before that tipping point is reached.
"Hitting the ceiling is not this cataclysmic event," said Phillip Swagel, an economist and former assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department. "It's not good, but the treasury can continue to deal with it. ... It has the ability to prioritize some payments over other payments."
Where it would have a bigger impact is negatively impacting the United States' image among international investors, which could lead to a surge in interest rates and devaluation of the dollar.
"That's the real risk at this point," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist for Point Loma Nazarene University and a former chief economist at Bank of America. "The debt ceiling is being used as a tool to perhaps gain some real progress in deficit reduction, but failure to achieve success could send some of the same kind of message as we saw in Portugal," the debt-ridden nation that could become the third European country to need a bailout.
"We have seen in the case of Europe how markets can punish a country if there is concern about fiscal integrity," Reaser said.
Debate Over Debt Ceiling In Spotlight Amid Budget Discussions
The fight over the debt ceiling is not new, and it's one that creeps up every year as Congress irons out budget issues. But the current political climate and the heavy involvement of the Tea Party sets it apart from recent years.
Tea Party groups "are playing a very big role because they see the raising of the debt ceiling as a lever to achieve some significant cutbacks in government spending," Reaser said. "So they are using that as a hostage in this debate."
Tea Party leaders that helped bring many conservatives to power are anxious to see swift changes, and they say time is running out for action.
"Somebody needs to man up and make the tough decisions that need to be made," said Amy Kremer, chair of the Tea Party Express. "I didn't expect them to come in and change it overnight, but they just continue to kick the can down the road and everybody's losing patience."
Kremer and other fiscal conservatives are calling for bolder cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, even if that means pain in the short term.
"We don't want to give things up, but we don't want to go bankrupt either. Everybody across the board is having to give a little bit because that's what these economic times are about," she said. "The money has run out and they can't keep putting it on the printing presses."
The Tea Party's influence could make negotiations more challenging, especially if the two parties and Obama cannot find a middle ground on how to cut entitlement programs.
So far though, there is a lack of urgency, some say, especially from the president, who has been silent on specific steps that he would support.
The fight over the nation's debt is an old one, but "the new thing is how long it's dragging on without a resolution," Swagel said. "The newness is sort of how close we're getting to actually hitting the debt ceiling before action is taken."