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Unlikely pair of Pelosi and Mnuchin join forces as Washington’s crisis negotiators

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) outlined on March 13 a coronavirus aid package that would put "families first". (Video: The Washington Post)
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Early optimism Friday gave way to deep doubt about an economic relief package to help reassure an economy rattled by the novel coronavirus, when President Trump undermined the legislation, as he likes to do, with a tweet.

By midafternoon, Trump dismissed Democrats for not “giving enough” in negotiations.

One of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s top advisers instantly responded on Twitter. “#10 at 4:05 p,” wrote Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff.

Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, at the exact moment Trump was publicly mocking their proposal in the Rose Garden, had just convened their 10th call of the day. Rather than giving up, Pelosi and Mnuchin dug in for the final furious hours of talks.

Shortly after 6 p.m., Pelosi announced a deal to extend unemployment benefits, increase sick leave for workers and provide free testing for the deadly virus. Mnuchin struggled for another couple of hours at the White House, working through nettlesome details about the regulatory oversight of some issues.

But on Friday night, Trump declared he would “fully support” the deal and Washington’s top crisis negotiators had pulled off their third bipartisan deal in the past seven months.

In December, Mnuchin served as the administration’s point man in talks with Pelosi that led to passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade. That came after a massive budget deal they negotiated for federal agencies in late July.

Capitol Hill employees who were self-quarantined on March 12 discussed missing recent House floor votes and modifying plans because of the coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

But these past few days came at a far more tense moment of peril, as the global death toll from the virus passed 5,000. More than anything, these talks tried to show the world that the standard partisan dysfunction that has dominated the Capitol for years would be set aside at times of such great peril.

“We thought it would be important to show the American people — assure the American people — that we are willing and able to work together to get a job done for them,” Pelosi said at a Capitol new conference after 10 p.m. Friday.

Pelosi and Mnuchin’s 13th call came at 5:48 p.m., according to Hammill, and moments later Pelosi declared they had a deal, a lucky 13th call on the traditionally unlucky day of Friday the 13th.

They spoke seven more times after that.

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This unlikely pair have somehow become the most important negotiating team in Washington.

Mnuchin, 57, grew up in a New York family steeped in Wall Street, where he eventually rose to become a senior executive at Goldman Sachs and other banking interests that made him a nine-figure fortune. He went on to produce Hollywood movies before his interest turned to politics, where he served as a top fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Pelosi, 79, grew up in politics as the daughter of Baltimore’s mayor. She moved to San Francisco with her husband and worked for years in California’s Democratic fundraising circles.

Until he was nominated as treasury secretary, Mnuchin had never served in any government post. Pelosi won her House seat in 1987 and has climbed every leadership ladder, reclaiming the speaker’s gavel last year after losing it after the 2010 midterms.

Despite those differences, they speak each other’s key language: brevity.

“We listen to each other. And we kind of speak shorthand to each other because we don’t waste each other’s time on niceties or anything like that,” Pelosi told reporters late Friday.

Mnuchin’s allies say he holds some characteristics that distinguish him from other senior presidential advisers.

Pelosi appreciates his competence as someone who started working at Salomon Brothers while still in undergraduate studies at Yale University. Unlike other administration figures, little drama follows him and he can talk policy details.

“We’re talking about specific proposals that are based on legislation and precedent and the agencies of government,” she said.

That compliment came as an indirect rebuke to Trump, whom Pelosi never spoke to during the talks.

“There was no need for that,” she said.

Mnuchin became the Pelosi whisperer as the president-speaker relationship has devolved into a new low. She spent the fall leading the push for his impeachment in the House over the allegation that Trump withheld military aid and a White House meeting to pressure Ukraine to investigate his domestic political rivals.

Then, just before his acquittal in the Senate trial, Trump delivered a fiery State of the Union address that ended with Pelosi shredding her copy of the speech as she stood behind the president.

The last time the two spoke was in October when Pelosi stood up in a Cabinet Room meeting, pointed at Trump and challenged his loyalty to his country over his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, giving a toehold in northern Syria to Russia.

Yet Mnuchin maintained close ties to Pelosi and Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. They delivered the trade bill to passage one day after the impeachment vote in December.

So when it came to stimulus talks, Mnuchin had to be the point person. On Tuesday, the treasury secretary left a meeting with Trump and Senate Republicans to cut across the Capitol for a one-on-one session with Pelosi to jump-start negotiations.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) noted that the two “worked well together” in the past. “We’re hoping that he and the speaker can pull this together so that we end up not playing partisan games,” McConnell, who took a hands-off approach to the negotiations, told reporters after the lunch.

Mnuchin, at a Saturday news conference at the White House, said Pelosi was “literally available to us around the clock for the last three days.”

Mnuchin backers say they also believe that he has a unique relationship of trust with Trump — but Friday’s topsy-turvy talks put that to the test and demonstrated that no one is ever certain of their position with this president.

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At 8:30 a.m. Friday, 30 minutes before Mnuchin was slated to appear on a much-anticipated interview on CNBC, Trump demanded the inclusion of a huge cut in the payroll tax — an issue that faces bipartisan opposition, never came up in the Pelosi-Mnuchin conversations Friday and one negotiators had already agreed to set aside for a future round of follow-up stimulus discussions.

“Only that,” Trump tweeted, “will make a big difference!”

Mnuchin still tried to present an optimistic case. “I think we’re very close to getting this done. This is a very important bill,” the secretary told CNBC.

The mood quickly shifted inside the Capitol as House Republicans backed away from the legislation, afraid to support it if the president was going to pull the rug out from under them.

By the time Trump criticized the proposal in the Rose Garden, the legislation was on life support. Even after Pelosi and Mnuchin revived it, the secretary’s still relatively green experience on legislation became an issue over a technical snag in the bill’s language, something that delayed Trump’s tweet of support by almost three hours and pushed final passage of the legislation until after midnight.

In separate media appearances Friday, Mnuchin and Pelosi described this as just one small part of even bigger bills to deal with the crisis. The secretary compared it to the “second inning” of a nine-inning baseball game.

And Pelosi, late Friday, appreciated that she has at least one good partner in the administration. Her phone line will be open for the call.

“One of the good motivations to have a good rapport,” she said, “is that there’s always another bill down the road.”

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