You know that things are reaching a turning point on the government shutdown when you have reports of the White House making contingency plans.

White House officials have begun reviewing the potential impact of a brief lapse in new government funding if Congress doesn’t pass a temporary spending measure by March 4, people familiar with the matter said.

The administration’s review, led in part by the Office of Management and Budget, has looked at a range of issues, including the protocol to keep key government functions operational if Congress fails to pass a temporary spending measure by the end of next week.

“As part of the executive branch charged with overseeing the management of the federal government, OMB is prepared for any contingency as a matter of course,” OMB communications director Kenneth Baer said.

This is routine, but with the chances of a shutdown growing by the day, it’s significant. There’s not a whole lot the government can do to minimize the pain when they have no money authorized to them. Workers will go without paychecks, Social Security and veterans’ benefits recipients may not get their money, national parks will shut down, mass furloughs will occur. That’s the nature of the shutdown. Only essential personnel will operate.

Meanwhile, despite the imminent meltdown, Democrats and Republicans are out of Washington for a week, blame-storming.

Fresh from winning House approval Saturday of a landmark spending-cut bill, GOP leaders now are preparing a short-term spending measure to keep the government open for about two additional weeks while broader budget talks are conducted [...]

In exchange for extending the deadline, Republicans want Democrats to agree to cut spending even in that short-term measure, and will try to put the onus on Democrats if they oppose it.

Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, said the short-term bill would make “smart cuts and savings to keep the government operating.” If Senate Democrats do not go along, he said, they will “put President Obama in an extremely difficult—if not impossible—position of having to explain why his party is willing to force a shutdown in defense of a status quo government.”

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership, conceded no ground.

He said Senate Democrats wanted the short-term spending bill to continue funding at current levels, in keeping with President Barack Obama’s proposal to freeze discretionary spending at 2010 levels—$41 billion below his initial 2011 budget request. Republicans want a $100 billion cut from that level.

If there’s a way out of this, I don’t see it. This piffle from the Financial Times, claiming that this shutdown threat will put pressure on a “grand bargain” solution, is ridiculous. Regardless of the grand bargain talks, that solution isn’t coming in a week and a half.

What we do know is that there’s relatively little territory being fought over here. Schumer and the Democrats want to cut $41 billion below the President’s 2011 request; Republicans want $100 billion. In real numbers, it’s more like the difference between a $10-15 billion cut and a $60 billion cut. We’re talking between $45-50 billion when the budget deficit for 2011 is projected at $1.6 trillion. And that impasse is enough to shut down the government.

The scale of cuts in a short-term resolution is even smaller. Democrats probably want a short-term CR to remain constant, while Republicans want cuts of the same amount as in their bill. A two-week CR, then, would probably have no more than $4 billion in cuts, by my back of the envelope projections. Without minimizing how cuts would hurt people, to shut the government down over $4 billion in a $3.7 trillion budget? Just nonsensical.