TALKS BEGIN TO AVOID GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN…. In any scenario, the first step in bipartisan talks to avoid a government shutdown is actually initiating the talks themselves. Last week, this prerequisite was ignored — instead of working with the Senate on a spending bill that would keep the government running, House Republicans approved their measure knowing full well it would be rejected.

This week, however, though Congress is in recess, it appears policymakers have begun preliminary discussions.

With funding for the federal government set to expire in less than two weeks, Senate Democrats and House Republicans are in discussions to avoid a government shutdown, a Senate Democratic leadership source told CNN.

News of the negotiations comes a day after several Republican lawmakers indicated they might accept a short-term spending bill as long as it included at least some spending reductions and not necessarily the deeper cuts the House approved last weekend.

Senate Democratic leaders reacted positively to those comments Monday, said the source, and hope it will lead to an agreement before March 4, when a government shutdown would begin if the House and Senate fail to reach an agreement.

As things currently stand, Senate Democrats want to simply maintain the status quo for a couple of weeks, while continuing to work on a larger measure to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year. House Republicans have said that’s not good enough — they’ll agree to a temporary extension to avoid a shutdown, but only if it includes “some” of the drastic cuts they approved over the weekend.

If you’re wondering what “some” means, you’re appreciating the nature of the dispute.

Publicly, House Speaker John Boehner has said Senate Democrats should accept the entire $60 billion in cuts Republicans pushed through the House early Saturday morning, many of which chip away at the priorities of congressional Democrats and President Obama. However, privately House Republican leaders are acknowledging the need for a stopgap measure to continue funding the government while they negotiate spending levels for the bill a longer-term bill to fund the government through Oct. 1.

“Everyone knows that, no matter what the truth, we would be blamed [for a government shutdown], so it would be a dumb political move,” one House Republican leadership aide told CNN.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he does not want to agree to additional spending cuts this budget year but privately Senate Democratic leaders are bending on the issue.

“If they send something over with cuts we could probably accept it,” said one Senate Democratic leadership aide.

The debate then comes down to the size and breadth of the short-term cuts (which would leave room for more talks about more cuts).

As this continues, one angle to keep an eye on is the tolerance and pragmatism of the House Republican rank-and-file. Caucus members have already demonstrated a willingness to ignore their own leaders, and it’s certainly plausible that House GOP leaders and Senate Democratic leaders could strike a deal, only to see the House defeat it for being insufficiently right-wing.

Indeed, Politico noted this morning that “Boehner and Co.” are “hostage to the will of their caucus,” and as far as the right-wing rank-and-file are concerned, avoiding a shutdown isn’t really a priority.

Part of me wonders if we’ll reach a point in this Congress at which Democrats stop negotiating with Boehner and start asking for someone who actually leads House Republicans.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.