Dollar bill with tape measure
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Kai Ryssdal: We're going to skip the semi-obligatory 'Congress is coming back in session this week' story today in favor of something else. Some time this spring, lawmakers are going to have to vote on whether to raise the debt limit -- literally how much the government's allowed to borrow.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer has more on a deadline that may seem far off, but is already shaping the economic debate.

Nancy Marshall Genzer: Republicans are using the debate over the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip. Some say they won't vote to raise it unless some federal spending is cut. There's been a lot of speculation in Washington about where the Republicans' ax might fall. Economist Robert Shapiro was an undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.

Robert Shapiro: They will demand changes in health care reform and try to claim budget gains from that.

For example, by pushing to eliminate the mandate that everyone buy health insurance. Then the government wouldn't have to subsidize insurance for people who can't afford it. Other Republicans say restricting Social Security payments is their price for a yes vote on the debt ceiling. Limiting Social Security benefits for wealthy seniors. Or raising the retirement age. Veronique De Rugy is an economist at George Mason University.

Veronique De Rugy: Some reform in entitlement will happen. I think lawmakers are building up the courage to talk about reforming Social Security.

But will the budget hawks really vote against raising the debt limit if their demands aren't met? If the government hit the debt ceiling and couldn't borrow, the U.S. would default on its debt, forcing a government shutdown and hurting the global economy. Given that, Brookings political analyst Stephen Hess says:

Stephen Hess: A lot of this is trash talk. The idea that anyone is really prepared to put the U.S. government in bankruptcy is ludicrous.

Hess says the best we can hope for is the trash talk will set the scene for serious budget discussions in the future.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.