SLOUCHING TOWARDS A SHUTDOWN, CONT’D…. In a rare evening meeting at the White House, President Obama spent an hour and a half with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), trying to reach a budget deal and avert a government shutdown, scheduled to begin tomorrow night.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t resolve the lingering issues. But by all indications, Wednesday night’s meeting was more constructive than Tuesday morning’s meeting, and everyone seems to agree negotiators have “made progress.”

After trading public accusations earlier in the day, Boehner and Reid sounded a far more conciliatory tone Wednesday night. “I have confidence that we can get this done,” Reid said, adding that the group had “narrowed the issues significantly.”

Boehner, who has not made a joint appearance with Reid on a legislative matter in recent memory, agreed that “some progress” had been made and “there’s an intent on both sides … to work together to try to resolve this.”

That may not seem like an especially big deal, but the fact that Boehner and Reid appeared together outside the White House when talking to reporters has some symbolic value.

The leaders’ aides were expected to keep working through the night, and the relevant players are scheduled to renew talks today. But it’s worth emphasizing that the key sticking points haven’t changed — Boehner is still trying to drag another $7 billion in cuts out of Dems; the “riders” issue isn’t close to being resolved; and there’s ongoing disagreement over whether one-time cuts are sufficient to satisfy GOP demands.

Stepping back, it’s worth noting the phrase the Speaker keeps using, literally every day: “We’re fighting for the largest spending cuts possible.” Boehner isn’t using an exact number, at least not publicly; he’s only pushing for the single greatest number of cuts “possible.”

In case this isn’t obvious, the phrase isn’t a throwaway line. The Speaker keeps holding out because he wants to know exactly how far he can push Democrats. Boehner could have taken the $33 billion deal last week, but it occurred to him to wait — “If I balk, maybe I can squeeze a few more billion out of these guys when the pressure’s on.” Dems haven’t drawn any lines in the sand, so Boehner figures he can wait until the very last moment as way to get “the largest spending cuts possible.”

This way, the Speaker can plausibly go back to his caucus and assure them the final offer is simply the best he can do. That may not be enough to satisfy all House Republicans — they’re a pretty extreme bunch — but Boehner figures it’s his best shot.

The biggest problem with this strategy is it involves pushing the fight until the very last moment. And that moment is just about here.

For his part, President Obama spoke to reporters late last night from the briefing room. “I thought the meetings were frank, they were constructive, and what they did was narrow the issues and clarify the issues that are still outstanding,” he said. “I remain confident that if we’re serious about getting something done we should be able to complete a deal and get it passed and avert a shutdown. But it’s going to require a sufficient sense of urgency from all parties involved. It means that people have to recognize that a government shutdown has real consequences for real people.

“There was an interview that was done tonight on one of the nightly news networks — a man from Kentucky named J.T. Henderson. He said he’s counting on his tax rebate because his family has been scraping by, and he might not get it if the government shuts down. So J.T. said if he could speak directly to all of us in Washington he’d tell us that all of this political grandstanding has effects as it trickles down to normal, everyday Americans. I could not have said it better myself.”

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.