Debt ceiling cash crunch: When millions won't get paid

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Over four different days in November, the U.S. government has to cut checks to Social Security recipients totaling close to $70 billion.

Then there is the salary for federal workers and the military: $12 billion must be paid over five different days.

And don't forget the interest to all those bond holders with U.S. Treasuries: $30 billion due on November 16.

All those payments underpin the immediate crisis unfolding (yet again) on Capitol Hill over whether to raise the debt ceiling.

Don't raise it or at least suspend it soon and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew estimates that after November 3 he will only be able to pay the country's bills with the surplus cash he has on hand plus the daily tax revenue coming in. But at some point it won't be enough to pay everyone.

Lew said he expects the cash stash to deplete "quickly."

The Bipartisan Policy Center now projects quickly could mean between Nov. 10 and Nov. 19.

In all, the Center found the Treasury will have to make large daily payouts totaling $48.8 billion on October 30, $33.1 billion on both November 3 and November 16, and more than $15 billion on October 21 and between November 9 and November 10.

On other days between now and the end of November, Treasury will be making payments totaling anywhere from $1.4 billion to $14 billion.

When its cash runs short, millions of people and businesses expecting timely, in-full payments from the federal government may find their checks delayed.

That's because Treasury will be forced to either postpone all payments due on a given day until it can pay each in full, or to choose who to pay and who to stiff until some later date.

Related: 7 things you need to know about the debt ceiling (yes, that again)

Some Republicans in Congress have made clear that they don't wish to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling unless it's pared with spending cuts. Some have also asserted that the Treasury can simply prioritize payments to bondholders and avoid default.

But that strategy bears huge risks politically and practically.

The Treasury pays millions of bills every day. And most of those payments are automated. It pays interest to bond investors from one computer system and makes all other payments from another.

So while technically it may be possible to make interest payments since they're processed separately, it would be much harder for Treasury to prioritize what to pay among all the country's other obligations. And many argue that not making any payment due -- not just that to bondholders -- is a default.

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