New York, Jan 17 (IANS) Raising the stakes in the US government shutdown standoff, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has blocked President Donald Trump from delivering the highly symbolic annual State of the Union address to the joint session of Congress even as a group of centrist Democrat and Republican lawmakers met him to find a way out of the impasse.
In a letter to Trump on Wednesday, Pelosi cited the shutdown as the reason for not holding the ceremonial address on January 29.
She asserted that it would not be possible to provide the required “special security” needed for the event because the employees of the Secret Service and the Department of Homeland Security have not been paid for 25 days.
Trump could instead send a written message as was the custom till 1913, or wait for the government to reopen and schedule a new date, Pelosi suggested.
However, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen countered that her “Department and the Secret Service were fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union”.
If Trump is not invited to deliver the address, he will likely make a televised address to the nation. But Trump will be deprived of pomp and splendour that he craves.
The US government is limping along with all but the vital services shut down for the 27th day on Thursday because of the standoff over funding for a wall along the southern border that Trump was to build to keep out illegal immigrants and smugglers.
The Democrats in Congress have refused to sanction in the budget the $5.6 billion that is required for the wall and Trump is adamant he would not approve a budget without the allocation. Therefore, the country is without a budget to to fund all but the essential government services.
The wall has assumed mythical proportions in US politics. For Trump, it is to be his monumental legacy to the nation and a redemption of a grandiose promise to his supporters.
It has become equally important to the Democrats for the same reasons — it embodies all they hate in him and denying it would cut him down to size making him lose face before the nation, especially his base, and the world.
As if to underscore point about risks to presidential security that Pelosi mentioned, authorities announced the arrest of a man in Georgia state who was planning to blow up the White House.
Hasher Taheb, 21, was arrested by the Joint Terrorism Task Force that includes the Secret Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation, after he had disclosed his plans to undercover agents, federal prosecutor Byung Pak said.
While the majority of federal government workers are on furlough, or temporary layoff, those in essential services like law enforcement, air traffic control, airport security and border control are required to work even though they will not be paid till the shutdown ends.
A group known as the Problem Solvers Caucus, that is made up of seven members from each of the two political parties, met Trump in the White House Situation Room on Wednesday, but could not persuade him to compromise.
They proposed Trump to reopen the government temporarily while they discuss a more permanent solution to his demand for the border wall.
While the proposal made no headway, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “constructive”.
A bipartisan group of senators have drafted a similar plan to temporarily open the government and negotiate, which they plan to send to Trump.
Trump has threatened that he could keep the shutdown going for months, if not years. His opposition to the proposal for temporarily opening the government may be based on his fears that he could lose the momentum created by his brinkmanship.
In what has become a war of symbols, Democrats have opened a new front against Trump over his alleged links to Russia introducing legislation in the Senate to override administration move to lift sanctions against companies connected to Oleg Deripaska, said to be an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The measure was however, defeated despite getting the support of 11 Republican senators as it fell short of the required 60 votes.
The Democrats plan to introduce on Thursday an identical legislation in the House, which they control.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the sanctions on the companies was lifted after Deripaska’s ownership was diluted to protect other countries depend on the aluminium producers.
He was put under sanctions along with other business-people close to Putin in retaliation for alleged Russian meddling in 2016 US presidential elections.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)