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​Senate Raises Debt Ceiling Until December, Would Protect Social Security, Medicare

House expected to adopt same measure; AARP urges lawmakers to avoid a U.S. default

The U.S. Capitol in Washington

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

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The U.S. Senate passed a short-term bill late on Oct. 7 to keep the government from defaulting on its debt, which would put Social Security and Medicare benefits at risk for millions of older Americans. The House of Representatives is expected to pass a similar measure to raise the debt ceiling until early December.

The day before the Senate acted, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins sent a letter to legislative leaders urging them to resolve the debt ceiling issue.

"Millions of older Americans rely every day on their Social Security and Medicare benefits and deserve reassurance that the benefits they have worked over a lifetime to earn are secure," Jenkins says in the letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "AARP urges you to reach a quick resolution to the debt ceiling issue without putting at risk the Social Security and Medicare benefits that older Americans have earned and need."

Jenkins was among a group of business and institution leaders who met virtually or in person Oct. 6 with President Joe Biden and administration officials to shine a spotlight on the urgency of raising the debt ceiling.

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"Millions of seniors who depend on Social Security for their support would have to make awful choices, such as whether to pay rent or buy groceries," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said during the public portion of the White House meeting. Millions of Americans, she added, don't have enough savings to go without the checks they rely on.

Yellen said the Treasury Department will run out of the resources it needs to pay the nation's bills and avoid a default by Oct. 18 because it will hit its limit on borrowing (a.k.a., the debt ceiling). When Treasury hits this limit, authorization from Congress is needed to raise the debt ceiling so that more money can be borrowed to finance existing obligations.

About 65 million Americans rely on Social Security for retirement income and 63 million depend on Medicare to help pay for their health services. For most people over the age of 65, Social Security is their largest source of income, and for a quarter of all beneficiaries these benefits constitute nearly their entire income. Any default on the U.S. debt would harm the economic health of the nation and all Americans, including the millions trying to save for retirement, AARP officials say.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect new information. 

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.