Pelosi Asks Trump to Reschedule State of the Union Amid Shutdown
WASHINGTON — Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Trump on Wednesday to scrap or delay his Jan. 29 State of the Union address amid the partial government shutdown, an extraordinary request that escalated the partisan battle over his border wall even as bipartisan groups of lawmakers pressed him to reopen the government and make room for compromise.
In a letter to Mr. Trump that underscored how the shutdown fight has poisoned hopes of bipartisan comity at the start of divided government, Ms. Pelosi cited security concerns as her reason for proposing that the president postpone the annual presidential ritual of addressing a joint session of Congress in a televised speech during prime time — or perhaps submit a written message instead.
Security aside, her move would deprive Mr. Trump of one of the brightest spotlights of a president’s year, intensified this year by Democratic control of the House and the drama of the longest government shutdown in the nation’s history.
“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government reopens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has reopened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on Jan. 29,” Ms. Pelosi wrote.
The request was a bracing piece of theater, even in a presidency that has bent so many historical norms. Ronald Reagan postponed his 1986 address after the Challenger space shuttle exploded. Franklin D. Roosevelt transmitted a written message in 1944 as his health began to fail. But Mr. Trump had no intention of giving up the spotlight.
Several White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the president’s frame of mind, said that he was utterly unbothered by Ms. Pelosi’s missive, which they noted was not an absolute cancellation but a half-measure suggesting a postponement. One of them said it opened up options for Mr. Trump for “creative alternatives” to the staid, tradition-bound speech, and that he could deliver a speech anywhere he chose.
Still, while she couched her request in logistical concerns, Ms. Pelosi’s proposal served as a reminder to Mr. Trump that she now has the power to frustrate his agenda and upend his plans. It drew rebukes from Republicans who said Ms. Pelosi was politicizing the State of the Union address; Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader, told reporters in the Capitol that the decision was “unbecoming of a speaker.”
It came as pressure intensified on the president from two separate groups of centrist Democrats and Republicans, one in the Senate and one in the House, to drop his demand that wall funding be included in any measure to end the shutdown.
In a meeting with Mr. Trump in the Situation Room Wednesday morning, seven House Republicans and seven Democrats who are members of the Problem Solvers Caucus told Mr. Trump that they were eager to have a bipartisan discussion with him about border security, among other matters, but that he needed to first sign legislation to get government funding flowing again.
“Both sides listened to each other, and believe that there’s a way forward,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, who attended the session. He called it a “productive conversation,” but added, “It’s critical that we reopen the government first, for our safety, our security, our economy.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, called the meeting “constructive,” and said, “They listened to one another, and now both have a good understanding of what the other wants.”
Another attendee who insisted on anonymity to describe the private discussion said neither side considered it a negotiating session, and Mr. Trump did not embrace the idea of reopening the government before the border barrier issue was settled. The president began the session with an extended talk about what he described as the crisis at the border, while lawmakers told him about the effects of the shutdown on their districts.
In the Senate, a group of Republicans and Democrats was also working to persuade the president that no progress was possible as long as the government remained shuttered. It circulated a letter that called on Mr. Trump to drop his demand for wall funding as a condition of ending the shutdown, urging him to agree to sign a three-week stopgap government funding measure to allow time to forge a “broad bipartisan agreement” on border security spending.
“We commit to working to advance legislation that can pass the Senate with substantial bipartisan support,” said the letter, which was spearheaded by Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. “During those three weeks, we will make our best efforts following regular order in the appropriate committees and mark up bipartisan legislation relating to your request.”
The letter has support from several other Republican senators, including Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rob Portman of Ohio, as well as centrist Democrats including Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, according to several officials familiar with it who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the effort. But the White House was quietly lobbying against it, and proponents were having a hard time persuading Republicans to sign on.
“I’m not sure if it moves the process forward or not,” said Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, who was summoned to a meeting at the White House on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the issue. “I want to find out whether or not there’s a possibility that if we offer support, Republicans and Democrats alike, if we offer support for a three-week continuation, does that help the president, or does that hurt the president, in terms of allowing him some middle ground to find a consensus on getting some work done on the wall.”
“If it’s just seen as a weakening of his position,” Mr. Rounds added of Mr. Trump, “then he probably wouldn’t do it.”
That is precisely the reason Mr. Trump has ruled out similar plans both publicly and privately, saying he would not reopen the government without first securing funding for the wall.
Mr. Coons, in terse remarks as he left the Senate floor on Wednesday, offered a gloomy assessment of the plan’s chances: “This letter is going nowhere unless there is sufficient clarity of support from Republicans.”
In the absence of progress, Democrats kept up a drumbeat of pressure on Republicans to break ranks with Mr. Trump and support measures to reopen the government without border wall spending. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, led Democrats in chants of “Open the government!” on the Capitol steps. A group of House Democratic freshmen made their second trek through the Rotunda in two days to the office of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, to deliver him a letter calling for action on a bill to end the shutdown.
“We’re trying to figure out how to leave it with him in as many places as possible so he can’t keep hiding from us,” said Representative Katie Hill, Democrat of California, who led the group, which at one point wandered onto a mostly empty Senate floor in vain attempts to orchestrate a face-to-face encounter with Mr. McConnell.
Neither the White House nor the Secret Service, the lead agency coordinating security for the State of the Union address, had an immediate comment on Ms. Pelosi’s letter suggesting that the shutdown push off the speech.
But Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, said in a tweet that her department and the Secret Service were “fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union.”
Ms. Pelosi’s office, appearing to borrow Mr. Trump’s tactic of citing nameless federal employees who he says have sent him messages of support on the shutdown, countered that a furloughed Department of Homeland Security employee had reached out to warn her aides that the department did not have sufficient staffing to manage security needs around the event.
With the leadership of all three branches of government gathered in one place, the State of the Union address is one of the highest-stakes events for federal law enforcement each year, requiring weeks of preparation. The Secret Service is among the agencies affected by the shutdown.
“Both the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been funded for 26 days now — with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs,” Ms. Pelosi wrote.
Buttressing her point, another arm of the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, acknowledged Wednesday that staffing shortages and airport lines were the result of the shutdown, saying in a news release that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations.” An agency spokesman had previously denounced a CNN report that T.S.A. workers were calling out sick to protest working without pay or seek other employment as “#FakeNews,” a denial Mr. Trump enthusiastically retweeted.
Beyond the staffing issues, rescheduling the speech would have other benefits for Democrats, too.
With Democrats and Mr. Trump at an impasse over his wall demands, the speech would give Mr. Trump a nationally televised bully pulpit to hammer away at Ms. Pelosi and her party.
“What are Democrats afraid of Americans hearing?” Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, said in a Twitter post, branding Ms. Pelosi #ShutdownNancy. “That 17,000+ criminals were caught last year at the border? 90% of heroin in the US comes across the southern border? Illegal border crossings dropped 90%+ in areas w/ a wall?”
The Constitution says the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union.” But what is now a speech to a joint session of Congress in the Capitol has taken different forms over the years, including in writing for much of the 19th century. The House speaker typically arranges the address by invitation, though its date is the subject of mutual agreement with the White House.
In her letter, Ms. Pelosi said there was no precedent for holding a State of the Union address during a government shutdown.