(WASHINGTON) -- A government shutdown means many things, but one thing it does not mean is that the government would shut down.
As Congress hurtles toward a breaking point in the clash over government spending, funding for the federal government is scheduled to expire on Friday. That's unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress can reach an agreement that's acceptable to the White House before then.
The likeliest short-term scenario would involve another temporary spending measure, to allow more time for final negotiations. Republicans have put forward a plan to shave $4 billion in spending in a two-week temporary extension, while Democrats in the Senate are discussing a similar level of cuts spread over a four-week period.
But another temporary extension would only delay the clash that could bring a temporary shutdown. Congress hasn't come this close to failing to approve government spending since the standoff between President Clinton and GOP congressional leaders in late 1995 and early 1996.
Federal agencies have detailed plans for how to act if the government runs out of money, though some questions remain regarding the specific impact. Chief among them: would anyone be without a job?
The answer is yes.
Perhaps a quarter of the more than four million federal workers -- a total figure that includes the Postal Service and the armed services -- could expect to have their jobs deemed non-essential. They wouldn't be paid during any period when funding isn't in place, and they'd be barred by law from volunteering their services if they wanted to. Large numbers of employees at agencies including the Education Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development would also be without jobs to go to.
If Congress follows past practice, affected workers would receive back pay when the standoff is over. Less likely to be made whole are government contractors who could also be affected if their services are considered non-essential by agency managers.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio