While Congress and the White House wrangle over the federal budget and new tax plans, another perennial problem child is creeping up from behind them.
The nation's debt ceiling expires Tuesday night. If Congress doesn't act quickly to extend this official limit on government debt, the Treasury's Bureau of Public Debt says, it may not be able to hold its regular Treasury bill auction on Monday.
Since the bills that are auctioned Monday would be issued Thursday, after the debt ceiling expires, "we wouldn't have any authority to issue, to borrow," said Volney Taylor, acting commissioner of the bureau.
The Treasury's schedule calls for auctioning off $18.4 billion in IOU's Monday, evenly split between three-month and six-month bills.
But there is another, even thornier problem. The Treasury might be forced to give back money to the rollover crowd.
On any given Monday, some Treasury bill investors have bills coming due. If there is no auction, there is no other provision for those who have asked that their investments be rolled over into new Treasury bills Monday, Mr. Taylor and another bureau official confirmed.
"What could happen, worst case, is that people who would like to roll over, we can't issue," Mr. Taylor said . "So then we get into that problem area of, can we redeem them or would they be willing for us to hold the money until we could hold an auction."
He confirmed that the bureau might ask to hold the money without paying interest.
No figures could be obtained late yesterday on the amount scheduled for rollover.
The current permanent debt ceiling is $3.123 trillion, but the government is operating under a higher, temporary ceiling of $3.195 trillion, which expires Tuesday night. Unless Congress acts, the ceiling will revert to the lower, permanent level -- which has already been exceeded by the Treasury's week-in, week-out funding operations.
The main source of reassurance for the busy officials of the Bureau of Public Debt is that they have been through all this before.
"We've been through most of the possible variations in the past," said an official of the Office of Finance, which handles the auctions.
In May 1987, for example, Congress came within a day or so of approaching a legal borrowing limit of $2.3 trillion. That old limit -- whichwas about $900 billion less than the current temporary limit -- prompted these prophetic words from Representative Kenneth H. "Buddy" MacKay, D-Fla.
"Let it be clear this isn't the end of the debt-ceiling issue. This is the beginning," Mr. MacKay said.
Back at the Bureau of Public Debt, Mr. Taylor said his staff is ready for anything.
"We've got contingency plans up to here," he said. "But we don't know which one is going to be exercised. Our best hope is that they [Congress] resolve the debt-ceiling crisis. It may be Monday before we know. It would be nicer if we knew Friday, but that's life."