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Remember the debt ceiling? Here it comes again

U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

After a 15-month hiatus, Congress is once again warming up for another round of self-inflicted budget "crises" that have become all but standard operating procedure when the Treasury needs to raise the limit of its borrowing authority.

That's right: The "debt ceiling" is back.

The budgetary bottleneck arrives again next month, when the latest suspension of the limit expires on March 15. Back in October 2015, Congress decided to punt on the issue by suspending the debt ceiling — with a hard end date.

Some budget watchers are already warning that another bitter budget battle could be looming.

Despite a Republican majority in Congress, the slow budgetary process, delays in repealing/replacing Obamacare, and a lack of internal consensus could spell trouble," said Oxford Economics senior economist Nancy Vanden Houten in a note to clients.

Members of both parties have used the mandatory borrowing cap as a negotiating tactic over a variety of legislative battles. The modern practice dates to the Clinton administration, when a standoff with House Republicans led to a pair of short government shutdowns.

In the summer of 2011, budget negotiations between then-President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress went down the wire, with some members of Congress threatening to force the Treasury to default on its debt for the first time in history. Despite an 11th-hour deal, Standard & Poor's was unimpressed. The credit rating agency, citing the bitter budget battle, docked Uncle Sam's Triple-A credit rating a notch.

In late 2012, Congress once again played another round of budgetary chicken when the Dec. 31 expiration of Bush era tax cuts threatened to collide with mandatory spending cuts that took effect the same day. A deal was reached and the compromise approved in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2013.

Since then, the last two debt ceiling deadlines have come and gone relatively peacefully, with agreements, first in October 2013 and again two years later, to simply suspend the limits. The latest suspension is due to expire next month.

Vanden Houten notes that, while GOP control of both Congress and the White House should make for smoother budgetary sailing, "the usual uncertainty surrounding the debt limit could be heightened this year."

She notes that President Donald Trump's budget advisors have voiced different opinions about how to deal with the debt ceiling.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former hedge fund manager, has said that making Treasury debt payments is a "critical commitment."

Trump's choice to head the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, "has questioned the urgency of raising the debt limit and has supported prioritizing debt payments over other federal obligations," said Vanden Houten.

If the March 31 deadline comes and goes without Congress raising the debt ceiling, the Treasury will once again begin deploying "extraordinary measures" to allow the government to keep paying its bills.

Those include things like postponing contributions to a retirement funds for federal employees. Vanden Houten figures that could free up enough cash to keep the lights on until sometime in September.