By JOHN BRESNAHAN and MANU RAJU | 10/4/13 4:58 AM EDT

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid privately told fellow Democratic senators this week what he really thought of Speaker John Boehner.

“He’s a coward,” Reid angrily said, referring to Boehner’s private push for federal health care contributions for lawmakers and their staff. Boehner later backed legislation to end those subsidies in order to win points with House GOP conservatives. “He’s a coward!” Reid exclaimed.

Reid’s outburst — confirmed by several sources attending a Senate Democratic policy luncheon on Tuesday — is the latest example of how the relationship between the nation’s top political leaders is now brimming with acrimony, distrust and pettiness at a perilous time for the country’s economy. The government shutdown — the first in 17 years — is in its fourth day with no end in sight. With the Treasury Department saying it might not be able to borrow money as of Oct. 17, the U.S. and global financial markets are already starting to fret about what would happen if the country defaults on its $16.7 trillion debt.

The bad blood is making it harder for the two sides to trust each other in the increasingly bitter fight to reopen the government and keep the nation fiscally solvent.

Boehner, Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have more than a century of congressional service between them, as well as a string of legendary political and legislative wins and losses. Yet there are times when the “Big Four,” as the party leaders are referred to on Capitol Hill, seem more like long-bickering members of a city council rather than the leaders of a great nation.

Not only has the Reid-Boehner relationship sunk to a new low, but so have the once-collegial ties between Reid and McConnell.

Reid and Pelosi both think Boehner is more concerned about saving his own neck as speaker than doing the right thing for the country as he pushes proposals to defund or delay Obamacare, which almost certainly won’t happen with President Barack Obama sitting in the White House. According to Reid, Boehner promised to pass a clean continuing resolution last month but has now refused to do so, leading to the shutdown.

McConnell and Boehner, for their part, are convinced Reid helped provoke a shutdown in order to help his party politically next year. McConnell has increasingly suspected that Reid and his closest confidants have breached Senate protocol by engaging directly in the Democratic effort to defeat him in 2014. But even House GOP leaders privately question whether McConnell is too distracted by his own 2014 reelection campaign to be a full player in the current government-funding fight.

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