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Originally published Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 10:04 PM

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Dealing with Debt

Treasury to tap federal pensions to help fund government

The Obama administration will begin to tap federal retiree programs to help fund operations after the government loses its ability Monday to borrow more money from the public.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will begin to tap federal retiree programs to help fund operations after the government loses its ability Monday to borrow more money from the public, adding urgency to efforts in Washington to fashion a compromise over the debt.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned for months that the government would soon hit the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling — a legal limit on how much it can borrow. With the government poised to reach that limit Monday, Geithner is undertaking special measures in an effort to postpone the day when he will no longer have enough funds to pay all of the government's bills.

Geithner, who already has suspended a program that helps state and local government manage their finances, will begin to borrow from retirement funds for federal workers. The measure won't have an impact on retirees because the Treasury is legally required to reimburse the program.

The maneuver buys Geithner only a few months of time. If Congress does not vote by Aug. 2 to raise the debt limit, Geithner says, the government is likely to default on some of its obligations, which he says would cause enormous economic harm and the suspension of government services, including the disbursal of Social Security funds.

Many congressional Republicans, however, have been skeptical that breaching the Aug. 2 deadline would be as catastrophic as Geithner suggests. What's more, Republican leaders are insisting that Congress cut spending by as much as the Obama administration wants to raise the debt limit, without any new taxes. Obama is proposing spending cuts and tax increases to rein in the debt.

Geithner's plan to tap federal retiree programs as a temporary means to avoid a government default comes as the Obama administration has shown growing interest in altering those programs to curb the debt in the long run.

Administration officials have expressed interest in raising the amount that federal employees contribute to their pensions, sources told The Washington Post.

Republicans have suggested that the civilian workforce contribute more to its retirement in the future, effectively trimming 5 percent from salaries. The administration has not been willing to go that far in talks being led by Vice President Joseph Biden.

Treasury secretaries have tapped special programs to avoid default six times since 1985. The most protracted delay in raising the debt limit came in 1995 after congressional Republicans swept to power during the Clinton administration.

But today, the government needs far more money to cover its obligations than in the past, making the special measures less effective than they used to be. The government needs about $125 billion more a month than it takes in each month.

In a letter released last week to Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Geithner wrote that a default would risk a "double-dip" recession.

"Default would not only increase borrowing costs for the federal government, but also for families, businesses and local governments — reducing investment and job creation throughout the economy," Geithner wrote.

But several prominent congressional Republicans have dismissed the Obama administration's assertion that the country would face dire consequences if Congress does not vote to raise the federal limit on government borrowing by August. The Republican Study Committee, which represents more than 150 lawmakers, sent a letter to Geithner last week pressing for more details about the Aug. 2 deadline.

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