Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew renewed his call for Congress to extend the debt limit before it "can cause harm to our economy."

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WASHINGTON — Congress has raised or suspended the debt ceiling four times since 2010, but the deadline coming up at the end of this week is different, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said Monday.

Why? "We expect our outlays over the coming weeks to exceed our net inflows," Lew said. That's mostly because it's the beginning of tax season, and tax refunds mean that the federal government's outflow of cash accelerates in February, giving the Treasury less flexibility in managing its debt.

Lew, speaking Monday at the Bipartisan Policy Center, renewed his call for Congress to extend the debt limit before it "can cause harm to our economy, rattle financial markets and hurt taxpayers."

As part of the budget deal that ended the October shutdown, Congress suspended the debt limit through Feb. 7 — this Friday. After that, the Treasury will still be able use "extraordinary measures" — like delaying payments to pension funds — to keep debt under the limit.

But unlike previous deadlines, those mechanisms will likely last only a matter of weeks, not months, Lew said. Because spending varies from month to month, the government has "more or less of a cushion" depending on the time of year.

The government usually has a negative net cash flow of $45 billion a month. Last February, it was $230 billion.

STORY: GOP softens resistance to debt-ceiling increase

House Republicans, who have been using the debt limit as a bargaining chip in its budget negotiations with the White House, appear to be less likely to force the issue this time around.

"We know what the obstacles are that we face, but we believe that defaulting on our debt is the wrong thing. We don't want to do that," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week.

The national debt subject to the debt limit is now $17.2 trillion.

Follow @gregorykorte on Twitter.

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