The Treasury has already decided to save enough cash to cover $29 billion in interest to bondholders, a bill that comes due Aug. 15, according to people familiar with the matter.
Projections computed by outside analysts show that the Treasury is likely to have enough cash to make most payments on Wednesday, including Social Security.
But officials were not yet certain which payments they could make because they didn’t know how much money they’ll have, according to people familiar with the matter. Government funding levels — a mixture of spending, borrowing and tax revenue — are becoming increasingly volatile as the deadline over the debt ceiling approaches, making it harder for officials to predict cash levels.
No matter what, within days of missing Tuesday’s deadline, the government would lose its ability to make all payments.
It’s unknown whether the government would pay most bills as they come due — while saving money for interest payments — or choose which obligations to meet and which to leave on the table unpaid. That process, officials said, would be extremely difficult.
In the meantime, federal agencies and their employees — like the rest of the nation — have been left waiting for answers.
Much as in the anxious days in April before a last-minute deal in Congress averted a government shutdown, agencies have received little guidance about how to prepare for a possible default.
It did seem increasingly likely, however, that in a default, civil servants would have to come to work, even if the government can’t pay them.
“There has been absolute silence,” said Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, which represents about 7,300 top career executives in the government.
“We have two working days to go,” Bonosaro said. “No one has received any instruction. It’s like pushing a marshmallow.”
At 4:44 p.m. Friday, Health and Human Services employees received an e-mail from Secretary Kathleen Sebelius saying that they were expected to report to work next week.
Treasury officials believe there is still enough time for lawmakers to strike a deal and were leary about announcing any contingency plans, fearing that lawmakers might wrongly believe they had more time, according to people familiar with the matter.
Congress is scheduled to be in session all weekend.
The administration could detail emergency plans this weekend, however, if there is no progress.
Treasury did win some relief Friday.
Moody’s, a credit-rating firm, signaled that the United States was likely to retain its AAA credit rating if the Treasury doesn’t miss a bond payment.