At the heart of tomorrow's Senate vote is the State of the Union address.
For 33 days ago, I have argued that the president is the weakest part of the shutdown fight. The Republicans have no reason to budge. Neither do the Democrats. Donald Trump does. His poll numbers are sliding, but that doesn’t matter as much as something else: The shutdown threatens his being the center of attention.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week that the president should submit his State of the Union address in writing or wait until the government reopens. That way, the Secret Service, whose agents are working without paychecks, can provide proper security for the event. Meanwhile, as Steny Hoyer said, “the State of the Union is off.”
While Trump’s aides told reporters that Pelosi’s letter made no difference, it clearly did. The president felt spiteful enough not only to ground her military flight to Afghanistan last week but to leak her destination to the press, effectively putting a target on her back. Trump’s staff, moreover, is preparing a State of the Union in spite of Pelosi’s request, pretty much daring her to stop him from entering the Capitol.
While Pelosi has not indicated whether she will bar the president of the United States from speaking (she has the authority), the State of the Union has been central to reporting on the latest development in the shutdown fight. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer agreed Tuesday to allowing two competing Senate bills to come to a vote on Thursday. If 60 senators vote for a stop-gap measure offered by House and Senate Democrats, it would give Trump what he wants. If he signs the measure, it will prove my thesis: that he values a television audience more than a campaign promise.
Odds are neither bill will pass and the shutdown will continue. Trump’s bill asks for nearly $6 billion for a wall in exchange for changes to DACA (the program protecting children of immigrants who arrived without proper authorization.) There are two reasons, other than the wall, why Senate Democrats will almost certainly kill it.
One, it replaces DACA with a severely restrictive program. Two, it revises existing immigration law. The Cato Institute’s David Bier said the bill would not expand protections for so-called Dreamers, as the president promised over the weekend, but gut them. Current immigration law, moreover, permits refugees to seek asylum no matter why or how they arrive. But Trump’s revisions would require them to stay where they are, no matter how dangerous, before applying for asylum.
While Senate Democrats are almost certainly going to kill Trump’s bill, it’s less certain whether Senate Republicans will do the same to the Democratic measure (which is the same the one passed by the House). That legislation offers nearly $2 billion for border security, but not a wall or a barrier, in exchange for reopening the government. The bill would fund the government through Feb. 8, and relieve whatever pressure Senate Republicans are feeling. Importantly, it would give Pelosi and Trump what they say they want. For her, proper security during the State of the Union address (because the Secret Service will be fully funded). For him, a national television audience.
Make no mistake how important this is to Trump. Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, got in front of cameras this morning to say that the president should be allowed the address a joint-session of the US Congress, shutdown or no shutdown. He knows, however, that the House must pass a resolution before the president arrives. It has yet to do so. The one person standing in the way is Nancy Pelosi.
As he has so many times before, the president tipped his hand this morning. He sent a letter to Pelosi saying that he would address a joint-session of the Congress as planned on Jan. 29 in spite of her request that he reschedule the event while the government is shutdown. He said she was mistaken. Security is not a problem, he alleged.
Whether that’s true is immaterial. What matters is that the president believes he can power his way to the podium. What’s more is that he’s affirming Pelosi’s gambit of withholding the State of the Union in order to force him to choose: delivering a national address or delivering a campaign promise. And in telling her how much it means to him, he’s giving Pelosi all the more reason to say no soup for you.
I don’t know what Pelosi’s response will be, but it’s hard to imagine she gives in. Indeed, I think the more salient question is this: when will she tell Trump that he can’t come to the House of Representatives? Before tomorrow Senate vote or afterward?
If she informs him before tomorrow’s vote, she will give Trump and the Republicans a way out of the shutdown. Senate Republicans can vote for the Democratic measure and reopen the government, thus providing proper security and the center of national attention to the president. If she informs him afterward, then all she gets is the satisfaction of humiliating him. I think Nancy Pelosi is too practical for that.
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