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Treasury’s Lew warns that US default could happen quickly

The Obama administration warned on Monday it could start defaulting on the government's obligations "very soon" after it runs out of room to borrow under a legal cap on public debt.

Washington is due to reinstate a limit on its borrowing at the end of this week and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the administration can use accounting measures to stay under the new cap until the end of February.

(Read more: Lew warns Congress of February debt ceiling deadline)

After that time, "very soon it would not be possible to meet all of the obligations of the federal government," Lew said at an event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a prominent Washington think tank.

U.S. politicians now partake in a regular dance around the country's so-called debt limit. First, Congress authorizes spending that outstrips tax receipts. Then lawmakers balk over whether to OK enough borrowing to pay the bills. A rancorous debate ensues over putting public finances on a stable path.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack LewGetty Images

Washington has danced perilously close to the edge of default several times since 2011, and this year some Republicans pledge to extract policy concessions from Democrats before they allow the debt limit to rise.

The administration has vowed not to negotiate on the matter, and Lew said public finances are in good enough shape that long-term fiscal problems don't have to be solved this year anyway.

Federal debt ballooned during the 2007-09 recession and most analysts think Washington's obligations to pay for health care for the elderly will stress the budget more as U.S. society ages.

(Read more: Buffett: Debt limit is 'political weapon of mass destruction')

But Lew said the sharp reduction in budget deficits over the last few years has bought America time to improve its fiscal outlook.

"I'm not sure this is the year for the long-term fiscal challenge to be dealt with," Lew said. "We have a little time to deal with the longer term."

It is unclear if Republicans, who are pressing for an overhaul of the government's health care obligations, will put up much of a fight over the debt ceiling. U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said last month American "shouldn't even get close to" default.


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