Past administrations have taken such steps to buy time awaiting a debt ceiling increase. That happened under Presidents Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. The government restored those funds after Congress raised the debt ceiling.
Those measures and others could keep the government solvent, perhaps as far as early March, according to an analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
There are other extreme possibilities as well.
The federal government could sell some of its assets, from its gold stockpile to its student loan portfolio.
"All these things are in principle marketable, and in a crisis you'd get huge discounts on them," said Holtz-Eakin, now head of the American Action Forum, a conservative public policy institute. "They wouldn't be good ordinary business, but you would be in extraordinary times."
According to a treasury inspector general report last year, department officials in 2011 considered and rejected the idea, concluding that gold sales would destabilize the international financial system, that selling off the student loan portfolio was not feasible and that such "fire sales" would buy only limited time.
An idea pushed by some liberals would take advantage of a legal loophole meant for coin collectors and have the Treasury mint platinum coins that could be deposited at the Federal Reserve and used to pay the nation's bills. But the Treasury issued a statement Saturday putting the idea to rest, saying neither the department nor the Federal Reserve believes the law "can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit."
Once all efforts are exhausted, then the government would be in uncharted territory.
At that point, the government would continue to get tax revenue, but hardly enough to keep up with the bills. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the federal government between Feb. 15 and March 15 will get $277 billion in revenue and face $452 billion in obligations.
The Treasury would have to decide whether to pay some obligations and not others or to simply pay for one day's bills as it tax revenue rolls in, exponentially delaying payments the longer the debt ceiling is not raised. Under virtually every scenario contemplated, payment of interest on the debt takes precedence to put off a calamitous default.
"I happen to think the triage would be chosen to create the maximum amount of political pressure to break the impasse right away, which would be withholding Social Security checks," said Philip Wallach, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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