The duo spoke again late Wednesday by phone, having already surpassed a dozen such calls this month alone, each tending to last more than an hour, according to readouts from each side.
Yet with each day Mnuchin takes a leading role in these talks, the more he looks like a guy who is simply out for a walk.
At this point he has almost no followers, as Senate Republicans continue to dig in against his effort.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the GOP whip, is in charge of counting votes and has grown more vocal each day this week. On Monday, Thune said it would “be hard” to get just 13 out of 53 Republicans to support the general outlines of a Mnuchin-Pelosi proposal. On Wednesday, Thune was more emphatic against the roughly $1.8 trillion to $2 trillion package.
“The dimensions of what they’re talking about today, I don’t think there are 13 Republicans for it. That’s my assessment based on the math,” Thune told reporters.
The unlucky number, 13, is the minimum number of Republican votes required to pass a bill if all 47 members of the Democratic caucus supported the proposal.
Yet, for now, Mnuchin cannot even count on the support of less than 25 percent of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s conference.
In late July, the Kentucky Republican cobbled together a $1 trillion proposal to serve as a counter to the more than $3 trillion mega-legislation that Pelosi had pushed through her chamber in May.
Rather than rallying behind McConnell’s proposal, rank-and-file Republicans loudly opposed it, with even the GOP leader admitting that at least 20 in his conference were opposed to any further aid.
So, not wanting to be seen as a “man taking a walk,” McConnell changed course. He left the late summer negotiations to Mnuchin and Pelosi, with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows taking part for a little while to serve as a conservative check against the treasury secretary’s dealmaking instincts.
Those talks broke down by mid-August and once Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, McConnell set in motion a singular focus for the Senate to confirm the nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, before the election.
At least 51 of 53 Republicans have signaled their likely support for the nominee, something McConnell viewed as a unifying way to head into the Nov. 3 election.
So Wednesday, hours before Mnuchin’s latest call, McConnell hosted Meadows at the GOP luncheon.
Was the chief of staff there to sell a deal from Mnuchin?
“I don’t think so, I don’t think so,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters, before joking that Meadows, like much of America during the pandemic, might have just needed fresh air. “Maybe he just needed to get out of the White House.”
Meadows told reporters afterward that he gave an update on the talks with Pelosi, acknowledging that there was still quite a bit of GOP opposition.
“Obviously there are a number of senators that have concerns over the amount we’re spending. There are some that think we’re not spending enough,” he told reporters.
Pelosi, who has negotiated several big deals previously with Mnuchin, believes Trump’s political standing is so strong with Republican voters that the president can use his bully pulpit to force McConnell into rounding up enough votes to pass a deal.
“It’s up to the president to take care of him,” Pelosi said Wednesday on Sirius/XM’s “The Joe Madison Show,” explaining how Trump desperately wants to tell voters before the election that he will be sending $1,200 individual checks to most households.
“It’s up to the president to convince them because the president needs this legislation. He wants that check to go into people’s pockets,” she said.
But Trump has remained focused on his reelection campaign rather than any effort to rally senators to his negotiating team’s position. He almost never mentions the relief package negotiations at his rallies, only talking about it when asked by media.
That’s left Mnuchin stuck in an impossible negotiating position.
Any offer he makes, Pelosi knows that he likely does not have votes from the GOP side to back up his position.
So the talks have continued to drift closer to her preferred topline number of at least $2 trillion, which only further distances Mnuchin from Senate Republicans.
Even those facing difficult reelections have declined to embrace such a big proposal, suggesting that Pelosi’s plan for nearly $500 billion in aid to hard-hit state and local governments would just bail out local Democratic officials.
“I support another package. What I don’t support is having Montana taxpayers responsible for what’s happened in places like California and New York,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said Wednesday.
Daines, who is locked in a toss-up race against Gov. Steve Bullock (D), represents one of the highest per-capita states for coronavirus positive tests. But he is fine with the slimmed-down, $500 billion proposal that Democrats blocked Wednesday.
“That takes care of some of the most important, pressing needs,” he said.
“That’s pretty massive to me,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), also in a tough race, said Tuesday.
At this point in 2013 Republicans had just agreed to end a government shutdown that Boehner tried to avoid, telling them shutting down federal agencies would not compel the Obama administration to give up on implementing the Affordable Care Act.
Instead, they revolted and Boehner, realizing he had no followers, agreed to go along with their plan.
“It was a very predictable disaster,” he said on “The Tonight Show” a couple months later. “So the sooner we got it over with the better.”