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President Obama / Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Previewing the next big spending fight, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew urged Congress on Thursday to increase the nation's debt ceiling by March at the latest, or risk plunging the nation into default.

"The creditworthiness of the United States is an essential underpinning of our strength as a nation," Lew said in a letter to congressional leaders. "It is not a bargaining chip to be used for partisan political ends."

Some Republican leaders say they will not support a debt ceiling rate without more spending cuts or other concessions, but President Obama has said he will not negotiate on the issue.

In his letter, Lew noted that the two parties agreed this year to suspend the debt limit until Feb. 7. At that point, he said, the Treasury Department could employ "extraordinary measures" to keep borrowing in order to pay the nation's bills, but only for a month or so.

"We currently estimate that through the use of these measures, we would be able to extend the nation's borrowing authority only until late February or early March 2014," Lew wrote.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this week he doubts the Republican-run House or the Democratic Senate will give "a clean debt ceiling increase" to Obama.

"Every time the president asks us to raise the debt ceiling is a good time to try to achieve something important for the country," McConnell said.

The White House and congressional Republicans had a standoff over the debt ceiling in 2011, a dispute that contributed to a downgrade in the nation's credit rating.

The national debt is currently just over $17.2 trillion.

Increasing the debt ceiling would allow the government to borrow money to pay bills it has already racked up.

"Increasing the debt limit does not authorize new spending commitments," Lew wrote. "It simply allows the government to pay for expenditures Congress has already approved."

Lew's letter came the same week that the Senate signed off on a two-year budget agreement; Obama is expected to sign that legislation soon.

"Congress again has demonstrated its ability to work constructively to address the country's most pressing fiscal issues," Lew wrote, urging members to summon that spirit when it comes to the debt ceiling.



Copyright 2014USA TODAY

Read the original story: Lew to Congress: Lift debt ceiling by March

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