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US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew urged Congress Thursday to quickly raise the country's borrowing ceiling to avert yet another political showdown over debt that could unnerve capital markets.
"We have, you know, a deadline looming in February. February 7th our borrowing authority runs out again. At that point, Congress has to act," he said.
Under current law the Treasury can borrow what it needs to cover the US budget deficit until February 7, when a fresh cap is set at the level of that day.
The Treasury has special accounting measures it can take to cover the deficit for several weeks.
But if the borrowing ceiling is not raised after that, either the government will have to slash spending or it could be forced into default on the debt.
"It's a mistake to go to the last minute... It's a mistake to wait until the 11th hour," Lew said in a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington.
"Congress should do this as quickly as possible and with the least drama as possible."
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have battled to the last minute over the debt ceiling three times in the past 16 months, which raised worries that the country could default on its debt and spurred a credit rating downgrade from Standard & Poor's.
The US debt currently stands at about $17.3 trillion.
Lew said the fights have an impact on the real economy, even if the ceiling is eventually increased.
"People worry about what happens if payments aren't made, what happens if there's an economic fallout that undermines their stability, their employment. These are not things that Congress should play games with."
Lew said that if no change is made, the Treasury might be able to manage through late February or early March, while warning that government cash flow especially in that period is "very unpredictable."