ROUND 3 AT THE WHITE HOUSE FALLS SHORT, ROUND 4 COMING UP…. President Obama hosted an Oval Office meeting with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) this afternoon — the third meeting in as many days — as the search for a budget agreement continues. Like the first two rounds, the players departed without a deal.

Reid said this afternoon, in reference to a compromise on the size of the spending cuts, that “the numbers are basically there.” As the day progressed, we’ve come to learn that “basically” isn’t quite the same as “done.” And as of this afternoon, we’re getting a better sense of just how close they are.

In the talks Wednesday night and Thursday, Boehner’s camp presented an offer pegged near $39 billion in cuts, and after working overnight, the White House and Senate Democrats countered with a package described more in the range of $34 billion to $35 billion.

So, the House Speaker is prepared to shut down the government over family-planning services and $4 billion?

After the White House meeting, Boehner told reporters, “There is no agreement on a number, there’s no agreement on the policy issues.” He’s emphasizing this for a reason — if Americans come to learn that Republicans shut down the government because of birth-control pills and cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood offices, it’ll look slightly worse than when Newt Gingrich shut down the government because Clinton had him take the back ext on Air Force One.

In other words, the Speaker has to maintain the pretense that there are all kinds of issues keeping him from accepting a deal, though reality seems to suggest that isn’t true at all. All available evidence suggests Planned Parenthood funding, the integrity of Clean Air Act, and a few billion in spending — or more accurately, his right-wing caucus’ propensity to tolerate these provisions — are all that stands between a budget deal and a shutdown.

This, in case it’s not obvious, is sheer madness. We’ve come to expect a reasonable amount of stupidity, just as a norm, but this “debate” is just breathtaking in its inanity.

The president will once again huddle with Reid and Boehner at the White House — their fourth round of talks, and the third in a 24-hour stretch — tonight at 7 p.m. The House traditionally isn’t in session on Fridays, but lawmakers have been told to expect to work tomorrow, and to be available for a possible weekend session.

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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.