Sometime during the next several weeks, the U.S. Congress will take up the issue of raising the nation's debt ceiling so that the United States can continue to borrow money to cover a national debt that will soon soar past $14 trillion. The debate over raising the debt ceiling comes amid a highly polarized political atmosphere here in Washington.
The debt ceiling vote will be a high-stakes political showdown with national and international implications.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says that failing to raise the debt limit would lead to the United States defaulting on its loans, and he says that would be catastrophic.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman, Democrat Kent Conrad, spoke on the "Fox News Sunday" television program.
"This is a defining moment and we have got to decide as a nation," said Conrad. "Are we going to do some things that all of us would prefer not to have to do or do we wait for the roof to cave in?"
Many Republicans oppose raising the debt ceiling, arguing that it is time to force the United States to stop what they see as a cycle of excessive spending and borrowing. They say that any effort to increase the debt limit must be linked to deeper budget cuts.
Several of these Republicans won the support of Tea Party activists in last year's midterm congressional elections, and the Tea Party supporters are demanding that the lawmakers keep their word to cut the size of government or face their wrath in the next election.
Political analysts say all of this has led to a hyperpartisan political environment in Washington, one that former Senator Bob Bennett says he knows all too well.
"Well right now, if you look at it superficially, the town is really messed up," Bennett. "And we are headed towards the question of whether or not we honor our obligations and pay our bills, or refuse to ideologically because that is the real impact of the vote on raising the debt ceiling."
Bennett is a Republican who was defeated in his bid for a fourth term at a party convention in his home state of Utah last year by more conservative opponents.
The partisan atmosphere that pervades Washington could make it difficult for Republicans and Democrats to reach a compromise - not only on raising the debt ceiling, but also in finding common ground on the federal budget for next year.
Mickey Edwards is a former Republican Representative from Oklahoma and a veteran of numerous partisan battles in Washington. He retired from Congress after the 1992 elections and has spent several years in academia, including his current position at the Aspen Institute here in Washington.
"Party dominance now, party victories in the next election are so important that you have the two parties at war with each other all the time," said Edwards. "The campaign just goes on and on, so it is always warfare. And we are paying the price because if you are the enemy, I have to defeat you for me to be able to get anywhere. It is really hard to sit down and compromise."
At the heart of the debate over government spending is a deep divide over how the two major parties view the proper role of the central government.
President Barack Obama and most of his fellow Democrats in Congress see the federal government as providing an essential safety net for the poor, the sick and the elderly.
Republicans, fueled by the Tea Party movement, see the central government as too big and inefficient, and a hindrance to economic growth that would benefit all Americans.
Despite the highly partisan political environment and his own defeat last year, former Senator Bennett says he is hopeful that both sides will come to an agreement on raising the debt limit.
"Campaigning is a lot easier than governing," added Bennett. "Campaigning leads you into the area of slogans rather than solutions. And I think many of these folks are turning out to be more serious than we may have thought. So I'm an optimist that we will raise the debt ceiling and that we will not default on our debts."
Bennett's optimism seems out of sync with recent public opinion surveys that show about 70 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and nearly two-thirds believe the nation is in decline.
Members of Congress return to Washington next week after a two-week break. During that time, many lawmakers will have held town meetings with voters and heard a lot about the debt ceiling, the budget and cutting government spending.