Why is this happening?
Congress is supposed to pass a budget every year—usually through multiple spending bills for various government agencies and functions—well before the end of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. When the process breaks down—as it's done frequently in the past decade—the only way to keep the government funded is through what's called a Continuing Resolution.That measure is basically Congress' way of saying: "Just keep spending what you're spending for a few more weeks or months, and maybe we can pass a real budget by then."
The current CR—signed into law in March after to resolve the "fiscal cliff" debacle—runs out on at midnight Monday.
So why can't Congress just pass another one?
That question is better directed to the group of House Republicans who are insisting they won't go along with a fresh CR unless it includes key demands. In addition to delaying President Obama's health care law, the House-passed CR would remove a tax on medical devices included in the healthcare plan to help pay for extending coverage to tens of millions of Americans without insurance. The House has already balked at "clean" Senate bill without another House vote.
What happens now? Does the whole U.S. government come to a grinding halt?
No. Each department and agency responds differently, but "essential" workers stay on the job and "non-essential" workers go on furlough. (Departments now refer to these as "excepted" and "non-excepted" workers because if they're "non-essential," some people asked, why are we paying them?)
Each agency has made detailed contingency plans.
It's a long list, but generally speaking, it's business as usual for the most essential functions of government: Social Security checks go out, troops continue serving (though some may have to wait to get paid – the House bill has a provision to keep those checks flowing). NSA agents will keep snooping on phone calls,TSA screeners will keep screen bags at airports and air traffic controllers show up for work, along with food-safety inspectors, border patrol and federal prison guards, most FBI agents, doctors and nurses at VA and other federal hospitals, and any federalemergency and disaster relief workers. The Postal Service and Federal Reserve,which don't rely on Congress for funding, aren't affected
On the other hand, the disruption—even if the shutdown lasts only a few days—would be painful and widespread. Some benefits, like unemployment insurance and veterans' benefits could be delayed or reduced. National parks, museums, and many passport offices would shut down; the SBA and FHA would stop guaranteeing new loan applications; farm subsidy checks stop flowing, IRS tax processing would slow down, among other headaches.
What a nightmare. Will the House protesters back down?
That question is better directed toward House Republican leaders—but it's not clear they're in charge of the process any more. Many Republicans are angry at their anti-Obamacare colleagues for digging in and ignoring the longer-term risk of political backlash against the party. During a similar standoff in 1995-96, the Republicans ultimately bore the brunt of the blame for a three week shutdown that started a week before Christmas.
What are the odds President Obama can negotiate a compromise to keep the government going?
If odds could be expressed in negative numbers, that still wouldn't come close.
The White House likens House Republican holdouts to fiscal terrorists—and says it won't negotiate under those circumstances.
"The Republicans have provided a laundry list of essentially ransom demands of things," White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer told CNN last week. "They say: 'Give us these things or we will blow up the economy.' … What we're not for is negotiating with people with a bomb strapped to their chest."