The stock market may be posting record gains, but Washington could be mere days away from a government shutdown—and a few weeks out from a catastrophic default on the national debt.
But the reality of this looming fiscal crisis has many Americans wondering how we ever got ourselves into this mess. And, more importantly, what Congress can do over the coming days to avoid it.
We take a look at some of the questions that lawmakers dealing with – and the possible answers.
What do Congress and the president need to do to meet these deadlines?
First, Congress must pass a spending bill, called a continuing resolution or "CR," which would continue spending after Sept. 30, the end of the 2013 fiscal year.
If, as expected, the Senate rejects a House-passed CR that defunds Obamacare, then Speaker John Boehner might be forced to consider a "clean" CR with no provisions attached.
If he and Majority Leader Eric Cantor can't find enough votes among their own members to pass a clean CR, they may seek Democratic votes to pass a measure which doesn't include a "defund Obamacare" provision.
Obama and his spokesmen have repeatedly said he would not accept any resolution that would delay or defund Obamacare.
(Related video: Battle over Obamacare)
What happens if Congress doesn't pass a spending bill?
There would be a funding shortfall and the executive branch would begin a partial shutdown of federal operations.
Some workers would be furloughed and some agencies would suspend their functions.
The most recent partial shutdown lasted 21 days in late 1995 and early 1996 when President Bill Clinton and GOP congressional leaders couldn't agree on the terms of a spending bill.
In the aftermath of that showdown, the consensus among both Democratic and Republican strategists was that Clinton emerged stronger, while House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole were damaged.
Dole, a reluctant partner in the Gingrich shutdown strategy, said to his chief of staff at the time, "There's a lot of people (federal employees) not being paid, through no fault of their own. I've had enough of explaining away a strategy that makes absolutely no sense."
What operations would continue even if there was a partial shutdown?
The law allows operations necessary to the safety of human life or protection of property to continue even in the event of a partial shutdown.
(Read more: Debt ceiling fight 'damn dumb,' says Warren Buffet)
In past shutdowns, workers with national security and foreign relations responsibilities – such as CIA and State Department employees – have been exempted from furloughs, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Other exemptions have included programs and employees related to:
- Inpatient and emergency medical care
- Air traffic control
- Border and coastal patrol
- Care and guarding of federal prisoners
- Emergency disaster assistance