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November Social Security Checks Could Hinge on Debt Deal

Lew makes his way to a lunch with Senate Democrats in the Capitol earlier this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Lawmakers have another reason to move quickly to address the debt ceiling: senior citizens.  

Thursday's update to the timing that the Treasury Department says the country will go past the nation's borrowing authority in 19 days raises questions about November's Social Security checks.  

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew told Congress Thursday that the extraordinary measures used to forestall exceeding the debt limit would be exhausted by Nov. 3.  

"At that point, we expect Treasury would be left with less than $30 billion to meet all of the nation’s commitments — an amount far short of net expenditures on certain days, which can be as high as $60 billion," Lew wrote.  

The third of the month is not insignificant. That's the day payments are made to beneficiaries of both Social Security and SSI, as well as people who were already getting checks before May 1997.  

According to the Congressional Budget Office, that balloon payment for Social Security amounts to roughly $24 billion each month. If less than $30 billion in funds are available to the Treasury, the math could get tricky, leaving little room for error. And it could leave Lew and company with some untenable choices.  

Asked about the prospect of the issues with borrowing authority having an immediate effect on Social Security payments, a House Democratic aide said "of course" that would be a concern.  

"We shouldn’t be considering delaying or even missing payments to Social Security beneficiaries, veterans, doctors, etc. If we get that close to default, we’re in bad shape," the aide said.  

"The government makes approximately 80 million payments a month, including Social Security and veteran benefits, military salaries, Medicare reimbursements, and many others," Lew wrote. "In the absence of congressional action, Treasury would be unable to satisfy all of these obligations for the first time in the history of the United States."  

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was pressed Thursday on if the repeated updates and revisions from Lew could make the process appear too political.  

"This is a complicated proposition here," Earnest replied. "There are, you know, tens of billions of dollars that flow into the government and tens of billions of dollars that flow out of the government on a regular basis, and the concern is that ... by November 3rd, the U.S. will have exhausted our borrowing capacity and will have a quite narrow margin when you consider the inflows and outflows of cash into the U.S. government."  

CBO said earlier in the week that, "Treasury would most likely be able to continue borrowing and have sufficient cash to make its usual payments through sometime in the first have of November without an increase in the debt limit," but that report came out before Lew's latest in the series of letters to outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other congressional leaders.  

"The United States government cannot afford to default on its obligations, period. [Thursday's] letter makes even clearer the urgency with which Congress must act to make sure we don’t risk our nation’s full faith and credit," said Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. "When Congress returns next week, we must work together to immediately raise the debt limit and avoid taking our nation once again to the brink of default."  

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.

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