WASHINGTON — The debate over whether Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be allowed to keep some of their profits and rebuild capital is occurring against the backdrop of a larger, arguably more consequential battle over the U.S. debt limit.

Under the current arrangement with the Treasury Department, the government-sponsored enterprises give any profit to the U.S. government on a quarterly basis. But this quarter’s payment comes at a critical time if Congress is unable to raise the debt ceiling, raising the specter of a potential default by the U.S. for the first time in the country’s history.

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