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How the State of the Union became ‘leverage’ in shutdown debate

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested President Trump’s State of the Union be postponed for safety reasons related to the shutdown, although the Department of Homeland Security countered it is able to handle the event. Meanwhile, President Trump met with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to negotiate, as another payroll deadline approaches. Judy Woodruff talks to Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The State of the Union address may be the latest casualty of the partial government shutdown, now in its 26th day.

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had asked the president to make the speech on January 29, but, today, she asked that it be postponed. She cited security concerns due to the shutdown.

    In a letter to President Trump, Pelosi wrote: "Unless government reopens this week, I suggest that we work together to determine another suitable date."

    Meanwhile, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham urged Mr. Trump to jump-start negotiations.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    He doesn't have to commit, but I think it would be smart for the president to hear people out who want to have a pathway forward. But that's up to them. If they think they can do it some other way, do it. I'm not standing in your way. I just don't see another path.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president did meet today with one group of lawmakers from both parties. Meanwhile, the U.S. Agriculture Department recalled to work 2,500 employees to help process farm loans and tax documents. They will work without pay for Now,.

    Separately, the president signed a bill today that guarantees back pay for federal workers who are affected by the shutdown.

    We get some insight now into shutdown politics and possibilities from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

    I'm joined by White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor and our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins.

    Welcome to both of you.

    Lisa, what do we know now about the timing of the State of the Union?

  • Lisa Desjardins:


    Well, Speaker Pelosi's office now is being very careful, because there's a sense by Republicans that she may have overplayed her hand here. But Pelosi's office says what she is asking is for the president to make one of two decisions.

    Either hold the State of the Union address somewhere else, like the Oval Office, or for them to have to have continued talks over how it could work at the Capitol. She does say that it is a security concern for all the Homeland Security officers, Secret Service agents who have to work that event.

    However, the Department of Homeland Security has said it's not a concern, that they have the agents to work it, even if they're not going to be paid, that it shouldn't be a problem.

    But I think what we're seeing here is that Democrats do feel like they are on a high ground, and there's a question of leverage. I had several Democratic leadership sources who say, there is a concern of security, but they also think this is a president who wants a national stage, that he is a showman. And they do think there's a point of leverage here in saying, you will not have this platform if the shutdown continues.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, what are they saying about this at the White House?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Remarkably, the White House has not formally responded to Speaker Pelosi's letter.

    Now, this is the president who, of course, has talked a lot on Twitter and a lot in person about what he wants to talk about in terms of border security, in terms of the wall. But, at this hour — I had sources telling me that there was going to be a White House statement put out several hours ago. Nothing has happened.

    The White House did retweet the secretary of homeland security. I want to read to you what she tweeted.

    Secretary Nielsen said: "The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Secret Service are fully prepared to support and secure the State of the Union. We thank the Service for their mission focus and dedication and for all they do each — each and — each day to secure our homeland."

    Now, that is important, because the president hasn't actually said, hey, I really want to still do this. So, as a result, that's what we have from that.

    I want to also add that there is some precedent here for the president possibly not delivering the State of the Union in the way that we are normally used to hearing them do that. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan postponed his State of the Union because of the spaceship shuttle explosion, the Challenger exploded.

    And he said the day that he was going to say the State of the Union, he said, actually, we're going to do mourning and remembrance instead.

    Also, in 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he delivered the State of the Union in a fireside chat over a radio. And he did that because he did not feel well and did not want to go in front of Congress.

    So that's a little bit of history there. But, as Lisa said, the president is a showman. He wants this platform to talk about border security and talk about his demand for the wall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you have to go back a ways to find those — to find those precedents.

    But, Lisa, separately, you got some reporting today on the Senate side of the Capitol, some ideas maybe circulating about how to break through this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Quickly, Senate Republicans were lunching today. And it almost felt like there's a giant dartboard where suddenly they are trying to throw ideas to get through this, even as it's really up to the president and House Democrats.

    But one idea that seemed to get a little traction today, Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that he wants a bill to pass that would pay those workers who are forced to stay on the job now.

    I talked to Republicans in both chambers. They are very warm to that, as are some Democrats. So let's watch that. The question is, would the president support that? There is that bipartisan group that Lindsey Graham is starting.

    But right now, Judy, I don't sense a ton of traction there yet.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa — I'm sorry.

    And, Yamiche, back to you. The president — we know the White House has been trying to mitigate the effect of this on — and we mentioned this a moment ago — on some of these workers who are furloughed by saying that they're going to get back pay, but recalling them to work now.

    And remind us which workers are expected to show up and which are not.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president and the heads of agencies are the number one people who can make the decisions of who is considered essential and who has to go to work and who doesn't.

    Now, part of that means that the IRS today is recalling thousands of employees to process tax refunds. Unions are taking issue with that. I talked to one source for a union that is for the IRS employees. And that person said that this is really political winging and that the president is using his power and the agency heads are using their power to recall people who they think are going to help them politically, to help farmers, who might be the president's base.

    I also want to read to you the definition of what an essential or accepted employee is. Those are the people that have to work when there's a furlough. They are people that are performing functions that would affect life, safety, health or property, and they're deemed essential.

    So those are people that the government essentially says, you have to work without pay. But unions are challenging that. They're saying that there's an expanding definition and that's being used by the president as a political ploy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Lisa, calendar, what does it look like in the days ahead for this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    House and Senate were supposed to recess next week. Those are now canceled. They will be in town as long as there is a shutdown.

    But it's also important next week, Judy. Monday and Tuesday is the next drop-dead date for payroll to begin processing for the next paycheck. If the shutdown continues in early next week, that means those 800,000 federal workers will miss not one, but two paychecks at the end of next week.

    And, of course, the end of the month is usually when mortgages are due as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's all very serious.

    Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor, thank you both.

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