The U.S. government could exhaust its ability to meet all its financial obligations as early as Feb. 15, according to a new analysis by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The Center estimates a window from Feb. 15 to March 1 as the time that the "extraordinary measures" the Treasury Department is taking to stave off the debt limit may run out. Those measures, which involve a delay in the reinvestment of certain government funds, provide roughly $200 billion of maneuvering room.
The Center's analysis points toward the latter part of that two-week period as when such measures would be exhausted and the government would be forced to choose among which of its bills to pay. Because of the volume of bills scheduled to become due during that period, the window is unlikely to extend beyond March 1.
One potential source of additional maneuvering room, according to fiscal policy experts at the center, would be for the government to take the unpopular step of delaying tax refunds. The Internal Revenue Service is currently projected to send out some $86 billion in refunds between Feb. 15 and March 15.
A U.S. government default on its obligations would be unprecedented, triggering unpredictable consequences in financial markets and the global economy. For that reason, said Steve Bell, a former Senate Republican budget aide now at the Center, President Obama might consider a way to use his executive powers to avoid that even though administration officials have said they believe they lack Constitutional authority to do so.
—By CNBC's John Harwood; Follow him on Twitter: