Progressives withdraw letter from Ukraine to Biden after uproar

WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of progressive Democrats in Congress said Tuesday it had retracted a letter to the White House urging President Joe Biden to engage in direct diplomatic talks with Russia after it sparked an uproar among Democrats and raised questions about the strength of the party’s support for Ukraine.

In a statement, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus, said the caucus would withdraw the letter she sent less than 24 hours earlier. It was signed by 30 members of the liberal flank of the party.

“The letter was drafted several months ago, but was unfortunately released by staff without examination,” the Washington Democrat wrote in a statement. As caucus chair, Jayapal said she took responsibility for this.

The rare retraction capped a tense 24-hour period for Democrats. Many reacted angrily to the appearance of waning support for the president’s Ukraine strategy, which came just weeks before a midterm election in which his majorities in Congress are at risk.

The tug-of-war highlighted the fragile nature of Biden’s relationship with the progressive wing of his party, raising serious questions about their ability to work together not only on funding Ukraine, which seems secure, for now, but on more pressing issues that are top priorities for liberals.

The letter called on Biden to combine unprecedented economic and military support for Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to pursue a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”

“The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with its attendant certainties and unknowable catastrophic risks,” the letter said.

Jayapal said the letter was unfairly conflated with recent comments by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who warned that Republicans will not write a “blank check” to Ukraine if they regain a majority in the House of Representatives in November.

“The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that the Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic and economic assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with the Republicans who seek to disconnect Ukraine. the Americans. support” for Ukraine, Jayapal said.

However, Jayapal did not deny the content of the letter or the push for Biden to engage in diplomacy. Caucus members have called for a diplomatic solution since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine on February 24.

The text of the letter had been circulating since at least June, but only a handful of lawmakers signed on at the time, according to two Democrats familiar with the matter who were granted anonymity to discuss internal party deliberations.

Some Democrats who signed the letter months ago said they no longer support it.

“I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then,” Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs of California said on Twitter. “I wouldn’t sign it today.”

“We have to continue to support Ukraine economically and militarily to give them the leverage they need to end this war,” he said.

Once the White House received the letter on Monday, it acknowledged the “very thoughtful concerns” progressives had about the conflict in Ukraine; When asked about the letter after it was withdrawn Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that the administration still believes any decision to negotiate a peace deal directly with Russia was up to the president. Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“There is nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. We have been very clear about that,” Jean-Pierre said Tuesday. “Our job as we see it today, as we have seen it for the past year, over a year, is to make sure that Ukraine has what it needs on the ground.”

Privately, top national security officials believed it was not the most important change in strategy that was publicly perceived, according to people familiar with the administration’s sentiments. The White House did not urge Jayapal to retract the letter, according to the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal White House thinking.

Despite the retraction and the complicated behind-the-scenes process, some Democratic lawmakers said they still backed the sentiments behind the letter, arguing that it is Congress’s prerogative to debate the issue as it continues to approve billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine.

“I have voted for arms for Ukraine and will continue to support the supply of arms to Ukraine to counter Putin’s brutal aggression,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said in an interview Tuesday.

“At the same time, it is my obligation to make sure that we are mitigating the risk of nuclear war, that we are making sure that the conflict does not escalate, and that we are working towards a negotiated settlement that will be a just peace. That is the frame of the letter.”

The backlash against progressives who signed the letter, including some of the more outspoken voices in the caucus, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, was more specifically directed at Jayapal, who is the face of the liberal faction. It was the latest setback for the congresswoman, who has worked for most of the past year to help Biden and Democrats deliver on some of the party’s core legislative promises, often at the cost of some of her caucus’ more liberal priorities.

Notably, last fall, Jayapal helped push the bipartisan infrastructure package over the finish line after party divisions threatened to push it through the House. The recent mishap also casts doubt on his whispered ambitions to join the Democratic leadership.

Since the war began, Congress has approved tens of billions in emergency security and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, while the Biden administration has sent billions in weapons and equipment from military inventories.

Last month, lawmakers approved about $12.3 billion in Ukraine-related aid as part of a bill that funds the federal government through Dec. 16. The money included aid for the Ukrainian military, as well as money to help the country’s government provide basic services to its citizens.

That’s on top of more than $50 billion provided in two previous bills.

Financial support for Ukraine garnered strong bipartisan support in the Senate and House after the Russian invasion, but conservative opposition was present from the start. Republicans accounted for the only votes against a $40 billion aid package in the spring.

McCarthy’s recent comments have more clearly reflected the GOP’s growing skepticism about the cost of financial support for Kyiv.

Privately, Republican lawmakers who support aid to Ukraine say there might be a chance to pass one more tranche of aid in a year-end spending package before Republicans take control in the next Congress.

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The story has been corrected to show Rep. Sara Jacobs is from California, not New York.

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