WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Wednesday asked President Donald Trump to postpone his State of the Union address — or deliver it in writing — citing security concerns related to the partial federal government shutdown.
The suggestion, which could deny Trump an opportunity to make his case for border wall funding in a prime-time televised address, came as White House officials were urging Republican senators to hold off on signing a bipartisan letter that would call for an end to the government shutdown, now in its 26th day.
In a letter to Trump, Pelosi said the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security, both of which have key responsibilities for planning and implementing security at the scheduled Jan. 29 address in the House chamber, have been “hamstrung” by furloughs.
“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 January 29,” Pelosi wrote in the letter.
The White House had no immediate response.
State of the Union addresses are traditionally made to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the invitation of the House speaker. The House and Senate must pass a resolution to formalize the invitation — which has not happened yet this year.
Pelosi later told reporters that her letter was intended as a suggestion and that she was not rescinding an invitation for Trump to speak. She stressed that no address had ever been delivered during a government shutdown.
“We would have the president of the United States, the vice president of the United States, the entire Congress of the United States, the House and Senate, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Cabinet of the United States, and the diplomatic corps all in the same room,” she said. “This requires hundreds of people working on the logistics and security of it. Most of those people are either furloughed or victims of president’s shutdown. ... The point is security.”
Pelosi added that Trump is welcome to deliver an address from the Oval Office.
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., responded on Twitter, suggesting Democrats were trying to deny Trump an opportunity to make his case to the nation.
“#ShutdownNancy shut down the government, and now #SOTU. What are Democrats afraid of Americans hearing? 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?” he wrote.
There was still confusion Wednesday afternoon over the practical implications of Pelosi’s letter, fueled in part by a television appearance by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
“The State of the Union is off,” Hoyer said during a CNN interview.
Aides later said he had misspoken.
The House planned another vote Wednesday to reopen the government without funding Trump’s wall, this time on a stopgap spending bill through Feb. 8.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., once again rejected this tactic in a Senate floor speech Wednesday, saying: “As the White House has made clear just yesterday, cherry-picking continuing resolutions that fail to address the border security crisis are not going to receive the president’s signature. Not going to. The only way out of this impasse is a bipartisan agreement.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded to McConnell’s remarks with his own floor speech saying: “I would say to the leader very simply, you may disagree with us, open the government. Open the government. You can do it, Leader McConnell. And all your blaming and flailing isn’t going to open the government. We all know Donald Trump is the obstacle here.”
Meanwhile, senior White House officials were trying to tamp down any signs of division among Republicans as Trump remained unyielding in his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding.
A copy of a draft bipartisan letter in the Senate obtained by The Washington Post asks Trump to allow the government to reopen for three weeks “to give Congress time to develop and vote on a bipartisan agreement that addresses your request.”
“We commit to working to advance legislation that can pass the Senate with substantial bipartisan support,” the three-paragraph letter says. “This would include debating and voting on investments on the Southern border that are necessary, effective, and appropriate to accomplish that goal.”
In calls to GOP senators placed after word of the letter became public late Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner made clear that the president is unwavering and would not support the letter’s call to reopen the government, despite mounting concerns about the political cost of the shutdown for his party, according to a White House aide and three congressional officials who were not authorized to speak about the private discussions.
“The president sees this as a capitulation, and he’s not going to walk away,” the White House aide said.
But two other White House officials said Pence and Kushner have spoken carefully in these exchanges, knowing that the Senate may ultimately decide to act even if Trump is opposed to reopening the government.
“They’re not going to meddle, but they’re checking in and updating, reconfirming where the president’s thinking is at,” said one official familiar with the message delivered by Pence and Kushner.
Trump’s aversion to reopening the government was echoed by several conservative senators on Wednesday, who expressed skepticism about the moderates’ ability to convince Trump and congressional Democratic leaders to reopen the government.
“It’s not the time to kick this down the road,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said of the prospect of opening the government up and keeping talks about border security ongoing. “Apparently this draft has some support, but it’s the leadership that’ll decide what to do.”
Still, the moderates are moving fast to break open the stalled negotiations. The letter is being drafted by senators who took part in a bipartisan meeting earlier this week aimed at finding a way out of the shutdown.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an ally of McConnell, said early Wednesday that he intended to sign the letter but the timing and other signers remained in flux, reflecting a desire even among allies of the leadership to break away from Trump’s position.
“I see it as a solution,” Alexander said of the letter.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has been urging Trump to reopen the government, said, “We just have to demonstrate that there’s more than a couple people that want to do this.”
Murkowski added, “We’ve got to get the president to support it. Without that, we’re still stumbling along.”
Schumer is being regularly briefed on the bipartisan group’s activities and the count of senators on the letter, aides and lawmakers said, and has encouraged the group to pressure McConnell to act.
Other senators involved in the group include Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Rob Portman of Ohio, plus Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Christopher Coons of Delaware and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
A top aide to a GOP senator said they were encouraging others to sign the letter on Wednesday as a show of force and a “message to Trump to take it seriously.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the GOP whip, said he “respected” the group’s attempt to broker a compromise but that the president and leadership would ultimately decide how to proceed.
The new effort among some senators comes as the White House invited a group of House Democrats and moderate House Republicans to meet with Trump on the shutdown for the second day in a row, this time members of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers” caucus.
White House officials described Wednesday’s meeting with the House group as an attempt to contain the frustrations of moderates in both chambers and reiterate how the administration sees what’s happening at the border as a crisis that necessitates a wall.
Unlike Tuesday, when Democrats rejected a meeting called by the White House, seven Democrats planned to attend Wednesday, but their goal, they said, is not to negotiate with Trump but rather to share the Democratic perspective.
In a joint statement before the meeting, the Democrats, including four freshman, said a conversation on finding common ground on border security “can only begin in earnest once the government is reopened.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump lashed out on Twitter at Democrats as “a Party of open borders and crime” and pointed to a surge in construction of border walls by other countries as the standoff continued.
“It is becoming more and more obvious that the Radical Democrats are a Party of open borders and crime,” Trump said in one tweet. “They want nothing to do with the major Humanitarian Crisis on our Southern Border.”
He added “#2020!” — an apparent reference to a previous contention that Democrats are trying to prevent him from fulfilling a marquee campaign promise in an effort to hurt his reelection prospects.
— — —
The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane contributed to this report.