Meanwhile, with time running out, cooler heads are prevailing. Top aides to Boehner, Reid and Obama have been negotiating behind the scenes to cut a deal that would essentially split the difference -- cutting spending by between $33 and $36 billion, on top of $10 billion in cuts already approved and enacted.
The argument now is where those cuts will fall. Republicans want the cuts to come out of their $61 billion bill, which hits the Democrats' sacred cows -- from public broadcasting to federal aid to education. But it's unclear at this point just whose programs will be gored. What is becoming clear is that House and Senate Republican leaders want a deal, and Boehner's given House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers the green light to craft a new package of budget cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year.
"We're going to try to find some common ground. It's going to take some time," Rogers told reporters, adding that "the leadership has said for us to get started."
Vice President Joe Biden was sent to Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk to Democrats, a further signal that the White House is taking these backroom talks seriously. "We're all working off the same number now," Biden told reporters.
But whatever the compromise, can Boehner keep his tea-party forces from bolting?
With annual federal spending rapidly climbing toward an unprecedented $4 trillion under Obama's spending policies, and an estimated $1.6 trillion budget deficit looming in this fiscal year, cutting $40 billion isn't much.
But slashing this amount of spending in the middle of a fiscal year has never been enacted before.
Moreover, GOP leaders are telling their troops there are much bigger cuts to come when the House starts working on its fiscal 2012 budget this spring, when they expect to make deep reductions in both discretionary and entitlement programs.
Tea-party Republicans were sent here with clear marching orders: to get tough on spending and yield no ground. In the process, they have run into an obstacle-strewn legislative process in the Senate, which has become a burying ground for GOP proposals.
Shutting the government is not a strategy for cutting the budget down to size. The freshmen tea-party lawmakers need to learn how they can turn the system to their advantage and eliminate the political obstacles in their path. Defeating four Senate Democrats next year would be a good place to start.