US Republicans reject suggestion that State of Union be postponed

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said a government weakened by the shutdown cannot provide security for the event.

    Though Pelosi issued a customary invite to Trump weeks ago, she has hit the president in a vulnerable place [Yuri Gripas/Reuters]
    Though Pelosi issued a customary invite to Trump weeks ago, she has hit the president in a vulnerable place [Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

    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 Address.

    Pelosi cited concerns over whether the hobbled government can provide adequate security, but the 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.

    "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."

    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".

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    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.

    The Secret Service starts preparing for events like these months in advance.

    Trump did not immediately respond to the request and the White House had yet to offer any official response hours later. But GOP allies accused Pelosi of playing politics, with Republican Steve Scalise tweeting that Democrats are "only interested in obstructing @realDonaldTrump, not governing".

    Uncertainty around the speech

    Pelosi, who issued the customary invitation to Trump weeks ago, hit the president in a vulnerable place, as he has been preparing for the address for weeks.

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    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.

    Pressure on Trump intensified on the 26th day of the shutdown, as legislators from both parties scrambled for solutions. At the White House, Trump met a bipartisan group of legislators, 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 from a fight that he views as vital for his core supporters.

    On Wednesday, Trump signed a 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 the 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.

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    Thomas Jefferson began the practice of providing the address in writing, which was continued for more than a century until Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

    The address has been postponed once before, when Ronald Reagan rescheduled his 1986 address after the Challenger space shuttle exploded in flight on January 28 of that year.

    'Running out of ideas'

    Legislators struggled to find a way out of the shutdown on Wednesday. Trump is demanding $5.7bn to build a wall along the Mexican border that he says is needed on humanitarian and security grounds.

    But Pelosi is refusing money for the wall she views as ineffective and immoral and Democrats say they will discuss border security once the government has reopened.

    Some expressed little optimism.

    Senator Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has been working on bipartisan strategies, declared glumly: "I am running out of ideas."

     

    SOURCE: AP news agency