Senators Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer jumped all over comments today by a House Republican that essentially threatened a government shutdown over the continuing resolution on the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. They asked House leadership to clarify whether they agree that a government shutdown is possible in the next three weeks, when the current continuing resolution expires.

Mike Simpson (R-ID) told CNN that a government shutdown was a “possibility” but not something the GOP leadership wants to do. Last night, the House Republicans, forced by the conservative members of their caucus, deepened their cuts in the continuing resolution, which could be a full $100 billion under current levels, not $100 billion under the President’s FY 2011 budget proposal. That will be decided with amendments on the floor, though the leadership proposal will probably look more like $100 billion under the FY2011 proposal, which comes out to around $58 billion. Others in the caucus don’t want to include defense and homeland security cuts in that figure, which would increase the number further.

To be clear, Simpson didn’t exactly sound energized at the prospect of these increased cuts:

Referring to cuts by his own appropriations subcommittee, Simpson plaintively said, “if you want me to cut the Interior budget in half I can do that. And I can bring that to the floor. I don’t know that it will pass, and it will be ugly, just tell me a number and I’ll get there.”

He warned that Republicans are going to face a dilemma when it comes to a vote on steep cuts that may cause some political fallout.

“Individuals are going to have to decide whether voting for some of these cuts – which will be substantial in some areas and they may get backlash from voting for them – whether that’s worse than doing what they are concerned about, and that’s not doing the $100 billion.”

Nevertheless, Reid and Schumer took direct aim at this on a conference call. “It’s disturbing to hear two more Republicans raise the possibility of a shutdown,” Reid said, referencing not only Simpson but the comments of Presidential hopeful and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty at CPAC. Reid parroted comments a month ago from John Boehner that “we need to act like adults” and come up with a solution, rather than going back to 1995 and the gridlock that caused a shutdown. Reid noted that such a shutdown could send the economy reeling back into a recession, citing the $3 billion in exports left idle at the ports in 1995.

Schumer added that “Time is wasting while House Republicans argue amongst themselves.” He criticized the mad rush to the far right in the House, and said that the House leadership “is unable to stand up to their freshmen conservatives.” But he definitely signaled that Democrats are willing to “meet in the middle on spending.” Reid trotted out the President’s five-year spending freeze and McCaskill-Sessions, which mirrored that approach, as the starting point for discussion. That’s basically the left flank right now, a five-year spending freeze. And “cut and invest” is absolutely the new watchword for Democrats, with some programs being boosted and others being eliminated. “We know that cutting is necessary,” Reid said. “What are we going to cut?”

Reid floated the possibility of a short-term CR to give more time to break this impasse as better than a shutdown, but said that would cause a degree of uncertainty that would damage the economy. “We’ll do everything we can to avoid a government shutdown, but it’s not good to have a series of short CRs.”

As for the options for cuts, Schumer again brought up eliminating subsidies for the oil and gas industry. He highlighted the comments of John Hofmeister, the former CEO of Shell,, who said yesterday that the oil industry doesn’t need the incentives anymore with oil at $100 a barrel. Reid focused on a Pentagon program, what he called a “flying raygun” that costs $5 billion and that nobody in uniform, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, believes is workable. “This belongs in science fiction movies, not the budget,” he said.

The obvious goal here is to paint the GOP as extreme and rigid, and the Democrats as willing to compromise for the sake of the nation. The phrase “let’s use a meat axe instead of a scalpel” came up a lot. Only once did Reid manage to mention that the goal should be creating jobs at this point, not a monomaniacal focus on the deficit.