There wouldn’t be enough — in fact, there would be a $134 billion shortfall in August alone.
As Obama decided what to pay, he would choose among Social Security checks, salaries for members of the military and veterans, unemployment benefits, student loans, and many other government programs, according to administration officials and an independent analysis by a former senior Treasury Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration.
To protect the nation’s creditworthiness, Obama would have to balance those priorities with the imperative of making payments to investors in U.S. government bonds — ranging from domestic pension funds to the Chinese government.
“You can move the chess pieces around all you want,” said Jay Powell, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center and an author of the analysis. “You’re going to lose.”
For months, the president has been pressing Congress to raise the federal limit on borrowing, now at $14.3 trillion. Members of both parties have balked, saying they first want a plan to tame the growth of the debt.
On Wednesday, with negotiations over raising the debt ceiling hung up, Moody’s said it might downgrade the U.S. government’s top-of-the-line credit rating, which helps keep U.S. bonds the global gold standard, “given the rising possibility that the statutory debt limit will not be raised on a timely basis, leading to a default.”
Obama says he must reach an agreement by July 22 to get legislation through Congress and meet an Aug. 2 deadline, after which the Treasury Department projects it will no longer have enough money to pay for all U.S. obligations. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has warned that a default would deal a severe blow to the economy.
Some skeptics in Congress and conservative economists say that Obama has overstated the risk of not raising the debt ceiling and that tax revenue could pay for up to 60 percent of government operations.
“You do not have to default and you don’t have to shut down the government if you choose not to,” said Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland. If Congress raises the debt ceiling without a long-term plan for reducing the federal deficit, he added, “they’ll never solve the problem, and we’ll end up like Greece.”
Obama’s advisers have said that prioritizing some payments over others is impractical and would be chaotic. Money comes in and flows out at an inconsistent rate.
“You would have to make heinous choices about which bills you would pay,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
On Wednesday night, several Republican leaders were briefed on the Bipartisan Policy Center report as concern grew in the party about the potential impact of not raising the debt ceiling.