Remember, the plan right now is to pass a two-week budget to keep the government up and running while the House and Senate hammer out a compromise on a budget for the rest of the year. But even the mini-budget has a sticking point: The GOP is demanding that it include a small, token spending cut while the Democrats insist that it contain no cuts at all. So even the mini-budget, which is designed to avert a shutdown, may result in a stalemate and … shutdown.

I get what the Republicans are doing here strategically, but the fact that our Great National Debate on deficits and long-term fiscal responsibility has already stalled over $4 billion fills me with a sense of almost mortal dread.

The CR would extend government financing for two weeks after Obama signed the bill and its cuts would be prorated to reflect the $100 billion in cuts approved in last week’s CR. In other words, the $4 billion in savings would be roughly equal to the cuts the CR called for if carried out for just two weeks…

The GOP aides said the thrust of the trimmed-down CR is to avoid a government shutdown and make the GOP spending cuts as hard as possible for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House to ignore or criticize. “What we will end up saying is we have passed two bills to prevent a shutdown and then we will ask the Senate: ‘How many bills have you passed to prevent a shutdown?’ ” an aide said…

“The Republicans’ so-called compromise is nothing more than the same extreme package the House already handed the Senate, just with a different bow,” said Jon Summers, Reid’s communications director. “This isn’t a compromise; it’s a hardening of their original position. This bill would simply be a two-week version of the reckless measure the House passed last weekend. It would impose the same spending levels in the short term as their initial proposal does in the long term, and it isn’t going to fool anyone. Both proposals are non-starters in the Senate.”

A $4 billion cut represents not quite 0.3 percent of this year’s projected $1.5 trillion deficit. Put another way, it’s the equivalent of eliminating one day’s worth of deficit. Hence the GOP strategy here — propose it, force Reid to oppose it, then go to the public to point out how insane it is to think that trimming the deficit by less than half of a percentage point is “extreme.” Reid may have no choice but to oppose it, though, since if he gives in and accepts it, then the GOP will start to argue that its proposed budget for the rest of the year is no more draconian (on a pro rata basis) than the mini-budget that Reid agreed to. In which case, if the short-term fix is acceptable, why isn’t the longer one acceptable too? So Reid, knowing that, might dig in on the short-term fix, thus resulting in the most inane government shutdown in world history. The GOP would win the message war over that, but by sending a dramatic signal that even $4 billion might be “draconian” under certain circumstances, Reid would be conditioning the public to perceive deeper cuts as “unreasonable” and truly extreme.

One other tidbit from National Journal: Republicans are going to cave on the long-term budget proposal too. Again, for strategic reasons:

According to several GOP sources, the freshmen and many senior conservatives are girding for an eventual retreat from the bigger CR because they know GOP leaders are fearful of the political consequences of a government shutdown and want to wage the spending-cut battle over many cycles–instead of betting all their chips on this first showdown with Reid and Obama.

Boehner and Cantor have pleaded with the freshmen to take the long view of the budget war and not risk a political backlash over the CR dispute. GOP leaders have instead argued to win as many spending cuts as they can during the CR debate and follow up with more when Congress must raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling later this spring and find still more when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bills are written.

If they bet big that the public will side with them on a shutdown, as many Republicans on the Hill believe (“The Senate Democrats’ position that there isn’t one wasted dollar in the federal budget is absurd”), and things don’t turn out that way, it’ll embolden the Democrats and imperil the entire project of entitlement reform. So they’re going to go slow, demanding modest cuts to make the Dems look unreasonable in opposition and to build cred for when the time finally comes for that “adult conversation” about Social Security and Medicare. Exit question: Smart strategy or sellout?