By Makini Brice and James Oliphant
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With the partial U.S. government shutdown dragging into its 26th day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday urged President Donald Trump to reschedule his State of the Union address – a move that could deny the president the opportunity to use the pageantry of the speech to attack Democrats in their own chamber over the impasse.
With Trump’s address set for Jan. 29, Pelosi wrote him a letter citing security concerns because the Secret Service, which is required to provide security for the address, has not received funding during the dispute.
The standoff was triggered by Trump’s demand for a round of funding for his promised wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Presidents traditionally deliver the address, which lays out the administration’s goals for the upcoming year, in the House of Representatives chamber before a joint session of Congress and the majority of the Cabinet.
Democrats took control of the House after last November’s congressional elections. During the shutdown, Trump has routinely blamed them for the stalemate, although he had earlier said he would take responsibility.
Pelosi, speaking to reporters, suggested that if Trump would not agree to reschedule the speech until the government reopens, he could deliver it from the Oval Office instead, a setting that would lack the grandeur of a congressional address.
The White House had no immediate comment on Pelosi’s request, and her letter appeared to have taken aides by surprise. It pointed out that she had invited Trump to make the State of the Union address at the Capitol but said the shutdown complicated the situation.
“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,” Pelosi wrote.
In response, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Twitter her department and the Secret Service were prepared to handle a presidential speech at the Capitol.
Representative Jim Jordan of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republicans allied to Trump, said Pelosi’s move showed Democrats are “more focussed on stopping the president than they are on serving the country.”
Meanwhile, both sides in the long-running conflict sought to ratchet up the pressure.
Democratic senators huddled on the outdoor steps leading to the Senate in 39-degree (3.9-degree Celsius), windy Washington weather, holding large photographs of constituents furloughed by the shutdown or otherwise affected by it.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump “is using these men and women as pawns. Using them in an extortion game saying, ‘I am going to hurt these people unless I get my way.’”
At the same time, the president hosted a bipartisan group of House members to discuss finding a solution to the impasse. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said the meeting was constructive.
Democratic members who met with Trump said they called on him to end the shutdown and then talk about the issues dividing them.
“Our singular message was we’ve got to reopen the government and then in good faith we can have negotiations,” said Dean Phillips, a freshman representative from Minnesota, told reporters.
A handful of Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham and Lisa Murkowski, were circulating a bipartisan draft letter to Trump asking him to support a measure that would reopen the government for three weeks while they work on funding legislation that would address his concerns about border security.
A Democrat who signed the letter, Chris Coons, said it would not be sent unless a substantial amount of Republicans supported it.
Trump on Wednesday was expected to sign legislation that would ensure 800,000 federal employees will receive back pay when the government reopens.
Some government employees are being asked to return to work after being initially told to stay home during the shutdown, although they will not be paid on schedule.
Both the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday said they would call back nearly 50,000 employees to handle tax returns, refunds and other tasks or to work in aviation safety inspection.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it was recalling about 2,500 furloughed employees to assist farmers with existing loans and ensure the agency meets a deadline for providing tax documents.
The shutdown began on Dec. 22 after Trump insisted he would not sign legislation funding the idled government agencies unless it included more than $5 billion for the border wall.
The wall was a signature campaign promise of his before the 2016 presidential election. Trump said at the time Mexico would pay for it but has since reversed himself, denying that he ever said Mexico would directly pay the bill.
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, Ginger Gibson, Susan Heavey, Steve Holland and David Morgan; Writing by Makini Brice and James Oliphant; Editing by Steve Orlofsky, Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)