National debt ceiling 101: Is a crisis looming?

2. Are we close to hitting the limit?

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    This February 2010 file photo shows the National Debt Clock in New York.
    Mark Lennihan/AP/File
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Yes. As of Feb. 28, the debt total was about $100 billion short of the $14.29 trillion ceiling. Just during February, the Treasury added $63 billion in debt.

"The debt limit will be reached as early as March 31, 2011, and most likely sometime between that date and May 16, 2011," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in a January letter to Senate and House leaders.

He urged Congress to raise the ceiling, saying the alternative is a default on public debts, with "catastrophic economic consequences" as investor faith is shaken.

Many private-sector budget experts take a similar view.

"It would be a disaster for the United States if we were to default on our debt, which is an almost-certainty if the debt limit is not increased," says economic historian Bruce Bartlett.

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