House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Trump on Wednesday to postpone his State of the Union address — or deliver it in writing — if the government shutdown doesn’t end this week, an extraordinary suggestion that touched off a day of maneuvering and political theater from the White House to Capitol Hill.
The address, scheduled for Jan. 29, would give Trump a prime-time televised platform to make his case for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, the sticking point in a partisan stalemate that has closed large parts of the government since Dec. 22.
Pelosi did not rescind her invitation for Trump to deliver the address, but in a letter to the president she suggested they work together to find a different date for it after the government has reopened, because of the security costs involved from federal agencies that are going without funding.
The White House made no comment about Pelosi’s letter, but Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen dismissed any security concerns, writing on Twitter: “The Department of Homeland Security and the US Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union.”
The exchange over the State of the Union address came as White House officials were working to quell dissent on another front, 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.
At the same time, a group of centrist-leaning House Democrats met with Trump at the White House and urged him to end the shutdown, a day after some of their colleagues had spurned a similar invitation from Trump.
And not long after that, some freshman House Democrats embarked on an improvised and somewhat chaotic hunt for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), leaving letters calling for an end to the shutdown at McConnell’s office in the Capitol, in the Senate Republican cloakroom and in the Russell Senate Office Building — holding impromptu news conferences along the way.
“Just vote. Vote yes, vote no, but vote. Do something,” Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), one of the freshmen, pleaded outside McConnell’s office.
“The leader has spoken publicly many, many times on holding show votes,” McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart said in response, referring to McConnell’s opposition to taking up House-passed spending bills that would reopen the government but don’t have Trump’s support because they don’t fund his border wall.
Indeed, despite signs of interest on both sides of the aisle in bringing the shutdown to a close, the day ended with few signs of progress toward that goal.
There was no indication that Trump planned to yield on his demands for $5.7 billion in border wall funding — or agree to a short-term spending bill to reopen the government while negotiations continue, as a draft bipartisan letter circulating in the Senate was urging. And Democrats continued to reject border money beyond $1.3 billion for barriers and fences that would extend existing funding levels, insisting that they won’t even negotiate unless Trump signs a bill to reopen the government first.
Toward the end of the day, the House passed another stopgap spending bill to reopen the government without funding Trump’s wall. As with previous such bills, the White House issued a veto threat.
The developments left a number of lawmakers dejected.
“I said it could be protracted, and it is,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), arguing there could be no progress until Trump, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sit down and negotiate in earnest. “Until that happens, the situation looks bleak,” he said.
Shelby likened the predicament to the play “Waiting for Godot.”
“Godot hasn’t shown up yet,” Shelby remarked, while acknowledging that in the play, Godot never does.
Pelosi’s letter on delaying the State of the Union argued that the agencies responsible for security have been “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,” Pelosi wrote.
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 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.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) called Pelosi’s move “unbecoming.”
“It is not a security issue — that’s politics. It’s pure politics,” McCarthy said.
The shutdown is forcing some 800,000 federal workers to go without pay while having a variety of impacts on government functions, including at the IRS and the FDA. Trump signed legislation Wednesday to guarantee back salaries to furloughed workers once the government has reopened, but thousands of contract workers may never get paid.
Senior White House officials, meanwhile, were trying to tamp down any signs of division among Republicans as a bipartisan group in the Senate sought signatures on a letter asking 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,” says the three-paragraph letter, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “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 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 spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment about the private discussions.
“The president sees this as a capitulation, and he’s not going to walk away,” the White House aide said. Pence and Kushner reiterated that perspective in a call late Wednesday with lawmakers involved, according to an administration official who was not authorized to discuss the exchange publicly. As of Wednesday evening the bipartisan Senate letter still had not been released, and timing and signers remained uncertain.
Trump’s aversion to reopening the government while continuing talks was echoed by several conservative senators Wednesday, who expressed skepticism about the bipartisan effort.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) predicted that Trump would never agree to the short-term solution proposed by the bipartisan group. “You know when that’s going to happen? When you look outside your window and see donkeys fly,” Kennedy said.
Asked whether there’s anything more McConnell could be doing to end the shutdown, Kennedy replied: “Pray.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), one of the senators signing onto the bipartisan letter, said that if Trump won’t agree to reopen government, he should declare a national emergency.
Trump had previously floated that idea, which could allow him to direct the military to construct a border wall without congressional consent. While it could be a way out of the impasse, Trump has been cooler to the idea more recently.
If Trump isn’t willing to reopen government, “I’m begging the president, please declare a national emergency,” Manchin said. “Please do it, Mr. President. Because we are in a political meltdown, and we’re trying everything.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a leader of the bipartisan effort who said he spoke with Pence on Wednesday, said the White House is “trying to figure out what the best play is.”
“I don’t see a way forward under the current construct,” Graham said, advocating for “a timeout from the shutdown” that would allow more productive talks about wall funding.
The new effort among the senators came as Trump met with a group of House Democrats and moderate House Republicans from the bipartisan “Problem Solvers” caucus.
In a statement afterward, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump and his team “had a constructive meeting” with the group.
“They listened to one another, and now both have a good understanding of what the other wants. We look forward to more conversations like this,” Sanders said.
Several Democratic lawmakers present offered similarly upbeat takes, though none pointed to specific progress made.
“I think that he [Trump] is willing [to negotiate]. I think Democratic leadership is willing to negotiate. We have just got to come up with some compromise,” said Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.). “I think there is a willingness on his part to open up the government, but we also have to talk about border security as well.”
But the effort by members of the “Problem Solvers” group to reach across the political divide that has paralyzed Washington earned scorn from some colleagues.
“’Problem Solvers’? They’re just problems. That’s what they are,” muttered Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) when asked about the outreach.
Mike DeBonis, Dave Weigel, Paul Kane and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.