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Democrats target Trump's State of the Union address in shutdown fight

Posted: 9:55 AM, Jan 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-18 16:51:14-05

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking to move the day of the State of the Union address or deliver it in writing, citing security concerns from the ongoing government shutdown .

"Sadly, given the security concerns and unless government re-opens this week, I suggest 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 29," Pelosi writes in the letter dated Wednesday.

While Pelosi's letter is framed as a request to find a new date, the decision of when to host the President is very much up to the speaker of the House. The House and the Senate have to pass resolutions to actually green light the State of the Union. Neither have done so yet and Pelosi controls whether the House passes one at all.

Other members of Democratic leadership took a more confrontational tone with Trump. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told CNN's "At This Hour with Kate Bolduan" that "the State of the Union is off," though his office later walked back his comments saying Hoyer "mischaracterized" Pelosi's letter. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, tweeted "Individual 1 will not be permitted to deliver his state of the union address until government is reopened. Welcome to life in the New Democratic Majority. Get used to it."

Speaking with reporters, Pelosi argued the security issues are "completely out of my hands" and suggested Trump "can make it from the Oval Office if he wants."

Negotiations between Trump and congressional Democrats have made no apparent progress since the government partially shut down on December 22, with the impasse being whether to include additional funding for Trump's signature campaign promise of a wall along the US border with Mexico.

About 25% of the federal government has shut down, the longest such shutdown in US history, leading to hundreds of thousands of furloughed workers as well as hundred of thousands of employees working without pay. That has led to dozens of side effects, from longer lines at airport security, shuttered parks and thousands of federal employees and contractors -- many of whom live paycheck-to-paycheck -- to wonder when they'll get paid again.

Pelosi's letter cites DHS warning

Pelosi noted that the Secret Service, which is "designated as the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security" for such high-profile government events, has not been funded for 26 days.

In her letter, Pelosi referenced a dispatch from September from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen designating the State of the Union address as a "National Special Security Event."

"In September 2018, Secretary Nielsen designated State of the Union Addresses as National Special Security Events (NSSEs), recognizing the need for 'the full resources of the Federal Government to be brought to bear' to ensure the security of these events."

Nielsen's letter gave the same designation to other events like a presidential inauguration, a joint session of Congress with the Supreme Court in attendance, Republican and Democratic conventions, and state funerals.

"The designation of these events as National Special Security Events allows the full resources of the Federal Government to be brought to bear in the development of event security and incident management plans to ensure the safety of all participants," Nielsen wrote in that letter from last year.

White House adviser Stephen Miller and other White House speechwriters have been working on the President's State of the Union address for weeks. An administration official said they were prepared to craft it around the government shutdown, targeting Democrats, if it was still closed by then. One White House official told CNN the administration had begun putting together a list of potential invited guests for the first lady's box at the event.

Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican and member of GOP leadership, said he didn't know how Pelosi could make such a request.

"I don't know how they do that," Thune told reporters. "I can't imagine telling the President of United States — one, they are not negotiating with him on the shutdown and, two, now they are going to tell him he can't come to the Capitol to them. That seems pretty far-fetched. I don't think that's going to go over very well with the American people."

Democrats go to White House but so far stay united

Democrats are so far keeping a united front against the White House, which is actively trying to peel off more moderate Democratic members in order to put pressure on Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer made the walk across the Capitol to speak to the closed-door House Democratic caucus meeting on Wednesday morning. His message, according to a member in the room: "Stay united. Stick together."

However, at least seven House Democrats attended a White House meeting Wednesday aimed at reopening the government that has been partially closed for more than three weeks.

Democratic Reps. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Thomas Suozzi of New York, Vincente Gonzalez of Texas, Anthony Brindisi of New York, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Max Rose of New York and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia attended the midday White House meeting in the Situation Room. The lawmakers are not part of Democratic leadership who has been leading congressional negotiations and are rank-and-file members mostly hailing from more moderate congressional districts.

That group, in a statement released before the meeting, reiterated the position of Democratic leadership: that the government must be re-opened before any negotiations on border security can commence.

"There is also strong agreement that if we reopen the government, the possibility exists to work together and find common ground to tackle some of our country's toughest problems and fix them," the group said in the joint statement. "But that conversation can only begin in earnest once the government is reopened. We accepted the White House's invitation to meet today to convey that message."

The US Constitution requires the President to brief Congress on the state of the union, but that briefing is not required to be a speech in front of Congress. President George Washington and his successor, John Adams, both delivered their annual messages as speeches before Congress. President Thomas Jefferson began the practice of delivering the State of the Union in writing. The tradition continued for 112 years until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson resumed the practice of giving the address in person. Almost every president since has delivered the address in person, rather than in writing.