Raju Chebium, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - The 2013 fiscal year ended at midnight Monday. Many federal programs and activities stopped beginning Tuesday and won't restart until a new deal is in place.
Here's a guide to understanding how Congress got to this stage and how a shutdown would affect you.
Question: Will the entire government come to a standstill if a deal isn't reached?
Answer: No. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other "entitlement" programs that are funded automatically will escape the worst effects. But government agencies that rely on yearly congressional appropriations will be hit a lot harder. That includes giant agencies such as the Pentagon and smaller ones such as the National Park Service.
Federal agencies have prepared plans to continue programs they deem critical to maintaining public safety and protecting property despite the shutdown. Employees who perform those critical functions will continue to work and get paid.
For instance, air traffic controllers and firefighters contracted by the National Forest Service would continue to work, but park rangers and researchers who conduct clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health would be furloughed.
USA TODAY estimates that about 41 percent of nondefense federal employees will be furloughed, but the remaining 59 percent will continue working.
Q: Will I still get my mail?
A: Yes. The U.S. Postal Service isn't funded by taxpayers. Independently financed agencies like the Postal Service won't be affected.
Q: How did Congress get in this situation?
A: In a word, partisanship. Differences between Democrats and Republicans are deepening over virtually every issue, and federal spending is the biggest one of all.
A temporary spending measure -- a continuing resolution, or CR -- approved by the GOP-controlled House on Sept. 20 would have kept the government running until mid-December but would have cut funding to implement the Affordable Care Act.
The Democratic-majority Senate rejected that plan, designed to gut President Barack Obama's signature health care law. On Friday the Senate approved its own CR that included money for the law known as "Obamacare."
House leaders are meeting over the weekend to consider their next move. If the House modifies the Senate CR as Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has promised, then the Senate has to approve the amended version before it reaches the White House.
It's unclear if and when those legislative steps will be fulfilled. Short answer: Things remain in limbo.
Q: What will be the impact of a shutdown?
A: All national parks and federal wildlife refuges would be closed for the duration of the shutdown, the Interior Department said Friday. About 9 million visitors were turned away from parks, museums and monuments run by the National Park Service in the mid-1990s, the last time the government shut down temporarily.
About 40 percent of the nation's 2 million federal workers would be furloughed. Though Congress has approved restoring lost pay retroactively in the past, there's no guarantee lawmakers will do that this time.
About 1.4 million active-duty military personnel must remain on the job but won't get paid until a new deal is signed into law. Active National Guard units also must continue to work. Most civilian employees of the Defense Department face furloughs.
Some other possibilities: Delays in processing tens of thousands of passport and visa applications, issuing gun permits, continuing U.S. bankruptcy court cases and approving mortgage applications.
Many congressional and White House staffers also may have to stay home. But members of Congress and the president are exempt from furloughs
Q: Has the government been shut down in the past?
A: Yes. The last one lasted 21 days from Dec. 15, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. It came soon after a five-day shutdown that lasted from Nov. 13-19, 1995. A disagreement over tax cuts between then-President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., precipitated those shutdowns.
Since 1976, there have been 17 shutdowns, though before the 1980s the government continued operating at reduced levels without furloughing workers.
Q: Isn't there going to be another showdown over raising the debt limit?
A: That's highly likely. Republicans, particularly ultraconservative tea party members, argue the debt ceiling shouldn't be raised unless Congress makes sizable spending cuts.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said the government will run out of money around Oct. 17. In addition to using tax revenues, the Obama administration has to borrow more money to pay bills the nation has already racked up. But Congress has to raise the debt limit to allow increased borrowing -- and that permission won't come without another fight.
If the debt ceiling isn't raised, the U.S. economy will suffer even more that under a shutdown, Obama said Friday. For instance, interest rates on credit cards, student loans and mortgages loans could rise. And the nation's creditworthiness -- and global influence -- would take a beating, experts say, though critics dismiss such talk as hyperbole.