How will Washington’s ongoing budget crisis affect seniors? Not much, at first. But it could become very costly in just a few weeks. One big unresolved question: Will Social Security benefits be paid if the government breaches the debt limit?

Many seniors programs will continue to operate for at least a while. For now, Social Security checks are going out normally and Medicare will continue to reimburse health care providers, such as doctors and hospitals, for their services. This funding is exempt from the government shutdown. So are Aging and Disability Resource Centers. Other programs, such as Meals on Wheels, senior job training, and the long-term care ombudsman, run on appropriated funds and could stop at any time.

However, these programs are still operating in many counties and could probably continue to do so for another few weeks. In many cases, local governments are fronting the funds in the expectation they’ll be reimbursed by the federal government once the shutdown ends.

The second stage of Washington’s fiscal confrontation could be much more problematic. If the government reaches its borrowing authority without an increase in the debt limit, the federal government would have to sharply scale back all of its operations. Treasury Dept. officials estimate they will need new borrowing authority by October 17.

If the debt limit is reached, social service programs such as Meals on Wheels would probably stop operating. Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals would at least be slowed. And President Obama, in a speech yesterday, said Social Security checks would be delayed.

But would they? Isn’t there a Social Security trust fund? This is something of a theological argument, but the bottom line is the government has special Treasury bonds in its Social Security account. However, it needs cash to pay benefits. Turning those bonds into cash would be complicated once the government has breached its legal borrowing limit.

My guess is we have not heard the last of this controversy. And Obama may yet find a way to get Social Security checks out, but getting there could be extremely controversial. The best I can say now is that there is at least some doubt about whether Social Security benefits would be paid on time.

The best outcome, however, is for the government to resolve its own fiscal crisis so we don’t have to find out.