Even as Congress finishes work on a 2014 budget bill, lawmakers are already gearing up for the next battle over raising the nation's nearly $17 trillion debit limit. Both sides know the fight is coming. The question is when.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew on Thursday said the federal government may reach its borrowing limit in February, not March as he predicted earlier. But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., both believe the deadline -- and legislative fight -- won't come that soon.
Contradicting the White House's assertion that quick action is needed, Reid said the debt ceiling may not become an issue again until “some time in May,” so action on measure “is not urgent.”
Reid's spokesman, Adam Jentleson, later backtracked on the May deadline and told reporters that Reid wants to deal with debt ceiling as quickly as possible.
“Senator Reid agrees with Secretary Lew that Congress needs to extend the nation's borrowing authority well in advance of when extraordinary measures are exhausted, as estimated by the Treasury Department,” Jentleson said.
Raising the debt ceiling has become a regular battle between Republicans and Democrats as the nation's staggering debt and budget deficits continue to grow. Republicans often argue that the deadline for action is far more flexible than Democrats and Treasury officials contend.
Republicans intend to use the debt ceiling fight to force Democrats to accept more budget cuts, and Reid's slip about the potentially later deadline will give them leverage to hold off for the desired spending reductions.
Congressional Democrats and President Obama have insisted they will not negotiate over the debt limit, but it is not possible for them to lift it without approval from House Republicans.
Boehner, meanwhile, suggested that the debt ceiling decision wasn't a pressing priority, though he was not as specific as Reid.
"I don't have an estimate of when we're going to reach the debt limit," Boehner said