News. Debate. Community. Levers for a better democracy.

Partisanship outweighs even the most basic Washington traditions

Centrist House Democrats on Wednesday spurned invitations to the White House for a second consecutive day, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for delaying the State of the Union speech until the government is reopened.

The new House majority's twinned moves to create symbolic distance from President Donald Trump also reinforce this plain reality: The government is so riven by partisan antagonism that basic Washington behavioral norms are getting yet another downgrade.

Longstanding etiquette dictates that members of Congress decline an invitation to meet with the president – especially if any sense that deliberating policy differences is in the offing – only if gravely ill or away from Washington. And, without fail for more than a century, presidents have been welcomed at the Capitol to give an annual address.

And yet both veneers of at-least-ceremonial bipartisanship are getting new cracks. While seven Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus joined moderate Republicans at the West Wing on Wednesday, at least that many Democrats in the group stayed away. The day before, a handful of Democratic lawmakers from the moderate Blue Dog Coalition did not show up for their scheduled lunch with the president.

As the Problem Solvers prepared to meet Trump in the Situation Room, top House Democrats came close to outright rescinding their invitation to deliver his State of the Union in the House chamber Jan. 29. Pelosi, who as speaker is responsible for arranging such joint sessions of Congress, sent Trump a letter lamenting how security forces have been stretched thin by the partial government shutdown, now in its record 26th day, and asked him to send his message in writing (the practice of the 19th century) or delay the speech until after the impasse is resolved. But Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters the president should read the message as "the State of the Union is off" because "we're not going to have business as usual as long as the government is shut down."

Steering Trump away from taking a podium that looms over lawmakers, of course, also prevents him from using primetime television to admonish those who would not include $5.7 billion for hundreds of miles of border wall in the legislation to revive funding for a quarter of the government.

The House Democrats who agreed to meet with Trump issued a statement beforehand signaling they did not want to be used as presidential props for a photo op. "The possibility exists to work together and find common ground to tackle some of our country's type of problems and fix them," they said. "But that conversation can only begin in earnest once the government is reopened. We accepted the White House invitation to meet today to convey that message."

Three of the group were freshmen from Trump-friendly districts who voted against returning Pelosi to the speakership: Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and New Yorkers Anthony Brindisi and Max Rose. The others were Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Thomas Suozzi of New York, Vincente Gonzalez of Texas and Dean Phillips of Minnesota.

The Blue Dog Democrats known to have turned down the president's invitation Tuesday were Spanberger, Luis Correa of California and Floridians Stephanie Murphy and Charlie Crist.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

© Issue One. All rights reserved.