Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON -- Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has been warning for weeks that the government will run out of the ability to borrow money sooner or later if Congress doesn't raise the debt limit.
Wednesday, he said, it will probably be more sooner than later.
Lew previously said that Treasury could run out of money to pay its bills by "late February or early March." But in a letter Wednesday to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Lew said it will probably be on the earlier end of that range. "Based on our best and most recent information, we believe that Treasury is more likely to exhaust those measures in late February," Lew said.
The bipartisan deal that ended the 16-day government shutdown last November also suspended the debt limit until Feb. 7. After that date, Lew said, the Treasury Department can use what it calls "extraordinary measures" to avoid having to borrow more money.
But Treasury won't have as much maneuvering room as it usually does. One reason: February is a big month for Treasury payments because of tax refunds. The government usually has a negative net cash flow of $45 billion a month; last February, it was $230 billion.
The national debt subject to the debt limit is now more than $17 trillion.
Boehner said last week that the debt limit is on the agenda when the House reconvenes next Monday, but he wouldn't commit to a specific plan or legislative vehicle for an increase.
"All I know is that we should not default on our debt," Boehner said. "We shouldn't even get close to it."