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Prioritization of US payments dangerous: Treasury's Lew

Picking and choosing which bills to pay would be dangerous and "irresponsible," Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Thursday, warning Congress that a failure to raise the debt ceiling in a timely fashion would imperil the global economy.

Taking specific aim at an idea to "prioritize" certain debts over others, Lew told the Senate Finance Committee that the idea would force the world's largest country into making unpalatable choices, branding it a mark of irresponsibility.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
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Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

"How can the United States choose to send Social Security checks to seniors or pay benefits to our veterans? How can the U.S. choose whether to provide children with food assistance or meet our obligations to Medicare providers?" Lew said in prepared remarks.

"We now face a manufactured political crisis that is beginning to deliver an unnecessary blow to our economy,'' he added.

The world's largest economy is embroiled in a standoff over spending and debt that has shuttered swaths of the government for 10 consecutive days. With nonessential parts of the government shut, the U.S. is teetering on the brink of its first-ever default on making its debt payments, which could occur as soon as Oct. 17.

"The president remains willing to negotiate over the future direction of fiscal policy, but he will not negotiate over whether the United States should pay its bills," Lew told the committee.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accused the administration of intentionally scaring the public and financial markets over the borrowing limit, "in an apparent effort to whip up uncertainty in the markets."

Hatch said the administration was refusing to "even have a conversation" over reducing the soaring cost of the government's big benefit programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

"If the Obama administration won't negotiate on entitlements in the context of the debt limit, when will they negotiate on entitlements," Hatch asked.

Lew said that the government's payment systems were not designed to allow him to pick and choose which bills. He said the government's computer systems issue around 80 million payments each month.

"Prioritization is just default by another name," Lew said.

—By CNBC.com with AP.

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