WASHINGTON (AP) – A grand Washington ritual became a potential casualty of the partial government shutdown as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Donald Trump to postpone his January 29 State of the Union speech. She cited concerns about whether the hobbled government can provide adequate security, but Republicans cast her move as a ploy to deny Trump the stage.
In a letter to Trump, Pelosi said that with both the Secret Service and the Homeland Security Department entangled in the shutdown, the President should speak to Congress another time or he should deliver the address in writing.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen denied anyone’s safety is compromised, saying on Wednesday that both agencies “are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union.”
Trump did not immediately respond to the request and the White House, thrown off guard by the move, had yet to offer any official response hours later. But GOP allies accused Pelosi of playing politics, with Republican Rep Steve Scalise tweeting that Democrats are “only interested in obstructing @realDonaldTrump, not governing.”
Pelosi, who issued the customary invitation to Trump weeks ago, hit the President in a vulnerable place, as he delights in taking his message to the public and has been preparing for the address for weeks.
The uncertainty surrounding the speech also underscored the unravelling of ceremonial norms and niceties in Trump’s Washington, with the shutdown in its fourth week, the White House and Democrats in a stalemate and the impasse draining the finances of hundreds of thousands of federal employees.
Pelosi left unclear what would happen if Trump insisted on coming despite the welcome mat being pulled away. It takes a joint resolution of the House and Congress to extend the official invitation and set the stage.
“We’ll have to have a security evaluation, but that would mean diverting resources,” she told reporters when asked how she would respond if Trump still intended to come. “I don’t know how that could happen.”
Pressure on Trump intensified on the 26th day of the shutdown, as lawmakers from both parties scrambled for solutions. At the White House, Trump met a bipartisan group of lawmakers, as well as a group of Republican senators, but progress appeared elusive.
While his own advisers said the shutdown was proving a greater drag on the economy than expected, Trump showed no signs of backing off a fight that he views as vital for his core supporters.
On Wednesday, Trump signed legislation into law affirming that the roughly 800,000 federal workers who have been going without pay will ultimately be compensated for their lost wages. That was the practice in the past.
As he weighs a response to Pelosi, Trump could not go forward with a State of the Union address in Congress without her blessing. Donald Ritchie, former historian of the Senate, said that anytime a President comes to speak, it must be at the request of Congress.
Trump could opt to deliver a speech somewhere else, like the Oval Office, but it would not have the same ritualistic heft.
Democratic leaders did not ask the Secret Service if the agency would be able to secure the State of the Union event before sending the letter, according to a senior Homeland Security official, who was not authorised to speak publicly. Pelosi’s office said Congress is already familiar with the percentage of Secret Service and Homeland Security employees who have been furloughed and working without pay.