Congress

Democrats back Pelosi decision to delay State of the Union as Republicans cry politics

Pelosi can prevent joint session from occurring Jan. 29 since Congress has yet to pass a concurrent resolution setting date

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., here with Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., right, and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., wants the State of the Union delayed until the government is reopened. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats lined up behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to delay the State of the Union until the government is reopened, even as Republicans decried the California Democrat for playing hardball politics, saying the speech should occur Jan. 29 as scheduled.

Pelosi jolted Washington on Wednesday when she sent a letter to President Donald Trump seeking to postpone a joint session of Congress to receive his annual address. While she offered it as a suggestion, it’s ultimately her call.

Joint sessions of Congress can only be held if the House and Senate adopt a concurrent resolution. Neither chamber has advanced such a resolution to set the date and time for this year’s State of the Union, and Pelosi controls the House floor.

ICYMI: Criticizing Trump, Pelosi highlights the president’s walkout in weekly press briefing

In her letter to Trump, Pelosi noted that a State of the Union address has never been delivered during a government shutdown since the start of modern budgeting in fiscal 1977. The Secret Service and Homeland Security Department, which would lead federal agencies in coordinating security during the speech, have not been not funded, she said, “with critical departments hamstrung by furloughs.”

“Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date after government has re-opened for this address or for you to consider delivering your State of the Union address in writing to the Congress on January 29th,” the California Democrat wrote.

Pelosi “postponed” a meeting about coordinating security for the address, her spokesman Drew Hammill confirmed. Asked if she would refuse to bring a concurrent resolution to the floor to set the State of the Union date for Jan. 29 or any other day when the government was still shut down, he just said the speaker was awaiting a response from the White House.

Democrats agreed with Pelosi’s security rationale for not wanting to host Trump’s address during a shutdown, but Republicans weren’t buying it.

“It is not a security issue,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters. “That’s politics, and you know it.”

The California Republican said it’s “unbecoming of the speaker” to reverse course after inviting Trump to deliver the speech Jan. 29 — an invitation the president accepted. Trump should still come to Congress to speak that day, McCarthy said.

“Pelosi should stick with her word on her first invite,” he said. “To change course like that shows she’s playing politics with her position as speaker. It’s not a place that this House should be.”

‘Height of chutzpah’

Other Republicans were even more aghast. 

“It is the height of chutzpah for Speaker Pelosi to feign concern for the President’s personal security during the State of the Union Address while callously showing no concern for the thousands of Americans who [die] each year because of illegal aliens and America’s porous southern border,” Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks said in a statement. He was referring to Pelosi’s rejection of Trump’s demand for border wall funding — the reason for the government funding impasse.

California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren said Republicans claiming Pelosi’s decision was politically motivated “don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“From a security point of view, it’s necessary,” the House Administration chairwoman said, citing the “extensive preparations” involved in preparing for the address.

“The whole government is there — the president, the vice president, the House, the Senate, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Supreme Court,” she said. “You have to have that security.”

While the bulk of the government employees who would be tasked with providing security for the event are likely to be deemed essential and required to work regardless of whether the government is open, Democrats argue that assigning them to work during the State of the Union address is an inappropriate use of limited resources. (The Capitol Police, for instance, are funded through the legislative branch, which has full appropriations for the current fiscal year, and are not affected by the shutdown.)

“We understand the people affected by this, and we’re not going to ask so much of them,” California Democrat Eric Swalwell said. “It’s insulting almost to bring them here to protect us when we can’t even pay them.”

Even Democrats who met with Trump at the White House on Wednesday to discuss working in a bipartisan way to end the shutdown were supportive of Pelosi’s decision.

“I don’t understand how we’re going to have a State of the Union if the government is shut down,” New York freshman Max Rose said. “I can tell you what the State of the Union is if the government is shutdown: We’re not open for business.”

Platform to pontificate 

If Trump were to deliver a State of the Union address now, much of it would likely be focused on making a case for the border barrier he wants funded before reopening the government. 

That’s partially why some Republicans think Trump should proceed with the address as scheduled. 

“The American people deserve to hear from the president about the crisis at the southern border and about his good faith efforts to negotiate with counterparties that don’t appear to be acting in similar good faith,” Kentucky Rep. Andy Barr said.

Democrats have no interest in providing Trump with a platform to pontificate on that topic.

“It would be completely inappropriate for President Trump to further deplete the [Secret Service’s] resources and manpower for the sole purpose of having an hour of uninterrupted primetime television coverage,” Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said in a statement. 

As of press time, Trump had not responded to Pelosi’s letter. But Democrats were clear it would be unwise for him to disagree with the speaker’s suggestion.

“I don’t think he can come if we don’t open the doors for him,” Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth said. “It would not be a good picture for him to be out there knocking.”

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