Shutdown may upend State of the Union speech

Posted at 5:19 PM, Jan 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-16 17:20:53-05

WASHINGTON (AP) — The partial government shutdown threw a prime Washington ritual into question Wednesday as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Donald Trump to forgo his Jan. 29 State of the Union speech, expressing doubts that the hobbled government can provide adequate security. Republicans saw 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 both agencies “are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union.”

Inviting the president to give the speech is usually pro forma, and Pelosi issued the invitation in routine fashion, in consultation with the White House, several weeks ago. But 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, little routine is left in the capital.

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.”

She added: “This is a continuation of government issue that we have the proper security for such an event.” She was referring to an occasion that brings all three branches of government together in the same room — the president, members of Congress and the Supreme Court justices who attend.

To Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the matter was less about security than about Pelosi feeling she has the upper hand in the budget standoff.

“She’s talking about canceling the State of the Union — this is not somebody who’s feeling any pressure,” Johnson said. “I think Republicans are getting the lion’s share of the pressure.”

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., said he hopes Trump will proceed with his speech. Pelosi is “censoring this vital message for transparent political purposes,” he said.

The White House hosted a bipartisan group of lawmakers, followed by a group of Republican senators, on the 26th day of the shutdown, with no sign of breaking through the impasse over Trump’s demands for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the Mexican border. Democratic leaders are refusing to bargain over a border wall they oppose as long as the government remains partially closed.

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.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware are leading a renewed effort to persuade Trump to let the government reopen for three weeks in return for a commitment from lawmakers to try to address his concerns about border security in that period. They are seeking signatures on a letter spelling out the plan.

Trump rejected that approach earlier and the initiative was having trouble getting many Republicans on board.

“Does that help the president or does that hurt the president?” asked Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., among those who went to the White House. He has not signed the letter. “If the president saw it as a way to be conciliatory, if he thought it would help, then perhaps it’s a good idea,” he said. “If it’s just seen as a weakening of his position, then he probably wouldn’t do it.”

While Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she has signed, others said GOP support was lacking. “They’re a little short on the R side,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., another leader of the effort.

Other lawmakers are floating additional plans, but Graham was skeptical any would break through.

“I am running out of ideas,” he said.

“The Democrats are not going to negotiate with the government shut down,” he said. “People in the White House don’t like hearing that. I don’t know what to tell them other than what I actually think.”

Even as administration officials projected confidence in their course, Kevin Hassett, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said Tuesday the shutdown is slowing growth more than predicted.

An economic shift could rattle Trump, who has tied his political fortunes to the stock market and repeatedly stressed economic gains as evidence that his tax-cut package and deregulation efforts are succeeding. Economic optimism had already cooled somewhat as Trump’s trade fight with China shook the markets.

Hassett told reporters the White House is doubling its estimate of the strain on the economy of the shutdown, and now calculates that it is slowing growth by about 0.1 percentage points a week.

With the shutdown in its fourth week, that suggests the economy has lost nearly a half-percentage point of growth so far, though some of that occurred at the end of last year and some in the first quarter of this year. Hassett said the economy should get a boost when the government re-opens.

Previous White House estimates of the impact did not fully take into account the effect on people who work for private companies that contract with the government to provide services, Hassett said.