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National debt balloons to $21 trillion — and it may not stop there

For the first time, the U.S. deficit has topped $21 trillion. (ValeriyLebedev/Getty Images)

For the first time, the national debt has hit $21 trillion. That figure was $20 trillion on Sept. 8, a little more than six months ago.

Why is this happening?

Federal borrowing has gone up since February, when Congress passed legislation to suspend the debt ceiling. That allows the government to continue borrowing as much as it desires, to fund expenses approved by Congress.

The law allows for unbridled spending until March 1, 2019. By that time, another $1 trillion or more could be added to the national debt.

Since the debt ceiling was lifted Feb. 9, the debt increased by more than a half-trillion-dollars in six weeks.

A big portion of the national debt is the federal budget deficit, or the amount of spending that goes beyond the total revenue collected by the government.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) stalled the spending bill last month on the Senate floor, as he criticized Republicans for doing exactly what they had complained about during the Obama administration.

"I ran for office because I was critical of President Obama's trillion-dollar deficits," Paul said at the time. "Now we have Republicans hand-in-hand with Democrats offering us trillion-dollar deficits."

Is spending expected to slow down?

We can expect the federal debt level to continue to rise, according to Peter G. Peterson Foundation President Michael Peterson.

"Our national debt reached a staggering $21 trillion today, having grown by $1 trillion in just the past six months," he said. "Worse yet, this unfortunate milestone has only just begun to include the effects of the recent fiscally irresponsible tax and spending legislation, which added more debt on top of an already unsustainable trajectory."

How high could it go? That depends on which analyst you ask.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that annual deficits could top $2.1 trillion per year over the next decade.

The government reports total debt figures each business day, but the reports lag behind by one day.

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