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If a government shutdown occurs, what actually happens?

Here’s what to expect if Republicans and Democrats in Congress don't reconcile their differences on spending for the last half of this fiscal year ... and a government shutdown ensues.

By Staff writer / February 23, 2011

Congressmen walk down the steps of the House of Representatives as they work overnight on a spending bill, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 18. If Republicans and Democrats in Congress don't reconcile their differences on spending, Washington could be headed toward a government shutdown.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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House and Senate leaders are more than $60 billion apart on how much to spend or borrow to pay for government after March 4, when the funding for the current fiscal year runs out. If no one blinks, Washington could be headed toward a shutdown – the 16th since Jimmy Carter was president.

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Most shutdowns lasted fewer than three days. One of the most famous, the standoff between President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich over balancing the federal budget – lasted 21 days, from Dec. 16, 1995, to Jan. 6, 1996. That shutdown furloughed some 800,000 federal workers; delayed processing of visas, passports, and other government applications; suspended cleanup at 600 toxic waste sites; and closed national museums and monuments as well as 368 national park sites – a loss to some 9 million visitors and the airline and tourist industries that service them.

It was, as Republicans had predicted, a “train wreck,” but it hit them hardest. Americans blamed the Republican House more than Mr. Clinton for provoking the shutdown, by a margin greater than 2 to 1.

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Here’s what to expect, if Republicans and Democrats don't reconcile their differences on spending for the last half of this fiscal year:

Why must the government shut down? According to the Antideficiency Act of 1870, federal agencies and programs must cease operations if Congress and the president fail to enact funding, except in cases of emergency. The US government shut down six times between fiscal year 1977 and FY 1980, over periods ranging from eight to 17 days, according to the Congressional Research Service. From FY 1981 to FY 1995, there were nine shutdowns lasting as long as three days. Funding for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 extends only through March 4.

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