Treasury Secretary Jack Lew called on Congress Thursday to move soon to raise the nation's debt ceiling to ward off any risk of a U.S. default, saying the crunch will come by the end of next month.
The nation's borrowing limit is suspended until Feb. 7. After that, unless Congress has authorized an increase or has chosen to extend the suspension, the Treasury Department will have to deploy special accounting maneuvers to continue to pay all the country's bills in full and on time.
Originally Lew had estimated that those "extraordinary measures" could last until sometime between the end of February and early March.
But on Thursday, in a public interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, Lew said he now believes it's most likely he'll run out of wiggle room by the end of February.
And he stressed that any last-minute drama over the debt ceiling could cut the U.S. economy's potential for growth and undermine confidence.
"Why would anyone want to hurt the U.S. economy and hurt the recipients of payments they're entitled to?" Lew said.
"Everyone knows these obligations are not made when you raise the borrowing authority. The obligations are made when you vote on appropriations bills and when you vote on tax bills."
And, he added, it causes undue anxiety among investors and consumers when lawmakers push the issue to the last minute.
It appears they may not finalize their strategy until their annual retreat at the end of January, although they may float trial balloons sooner than that, said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist for the Potomac Research Group.
But, Valliere said, it's a mid-term election year and "they don't seem eager to fight or instigate a crisis when they're getting tremendous mileage out of bashing Obamacare."
House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Thursday "we shouldn't even get close" to defaulting. "I would hope that the House and the Senate would act quickly on a bill to increase the debt limit."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after first telling reporters that he believed lawmakers had until spring to address the issue, later walked back those comments.
"Senator Reid believes that the debt ceiling should be dealt with as soon as possible," a Reid spokesman said in a statement. "Secretary Lew has recommended that Congress deal with this issue in February, and Senator Reid takes Secretary Lew's recommendations extremely seriously."