WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of progressive Democrats in Congress said Tuesday it had withdrawn a letter to the White House urging President Joe Biden to engage in direct diplomatic talks with Russia after sparking an outcry among Democrats and raising 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 was withdrawing the letter it sent less than 24 hours earlier. It was signed by 30 members of the liberal flank of the party.
“The letter was written several months ago, but unfortunately has been released by staff without verification,” the Washington Democrat wrote in a statement. As caucus chair, Jayapal said she took responsibility for it.
The unusual retraction capped a tense 24 hours for Democrats. Many have reacted angrily to the appearance of flagging support for the president’s Ukraine strategy, just weeks before a midterm election where their congressional majorities are under threat.
The back-and-forth has shed light on the fragile nature of Biden’s relationship with his party’s progressive wing, raising strong questions about their ability to work together not just on funding Ukraine — which seems secure, for now – but on more pressing issues that are the Liberals’ top priorities.
The letter had called on Biden to couple the unprecedented economic and military support for Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”
“The alternative to diplomacy is a protracted war, with both its certainties and its catastrophic and unknowable risks,” the letter read.
Jayapal said the letter was unfairly confused with recent comments by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, who warned Republicans would not write a “blank check” for Ukraine if they win back the majority in the House in November.
“The proximity of these statements has left the unfortunate impression that the Democrats, who have firmly 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 unplug America’s support” for Ukraine, Jayapal said.
Yet Jayapal did not disavow the substance of the letter or the push for Biden to engage in diplomacy. Caucus members have been calling 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 it at the time, according to two Democrats familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of 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 him today.”
“We must continue to support Ukraine economically and militarily to give it the leverage it needs to end this war,” she said.
Once the White House received the letter on Monday, it acknowledged the “very considered concerns” progressives had about the conflict in Ukraine; Asked about the letter after it was withdrawn on Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that the administration still believes that any decision to negotiate a peace deal directly with Russia rests with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. .
“There is nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. We have been very clear about this,” Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday. “Our job as we see it today, as we have seen it for a year – over a year – is to make sure Ukraine has what it needs on the ground.”
Privately, top national security officials thought it was not the major shift in strategy it was perceived publicly, according to people familiar with the administration’s sentiments. The White House did not urge Jayapal to withdraw the letter, according to the people, who were granted anonymity to discuss internal White House thinking.
Despite the retraction and the messy behind-the-scenes process, some Democratic lawmakers said they still supported the sentiments behind the letter, arguing that it’s Congress’s prerogative to debate the issue as it continues to approve billions. dollars in aid to Ukraine.
“I voted for arms to Ukraine and will continue to support providing arms to Ukraine to stand up against Putin’s brutal aggression,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, said in a statement. an interview on Tuesday.
“At the same time, it is my duty to ensure that we mitigate the risk of nuclear war, that we ensure that the conflict does not escalate and that we work towards a negotiated settlement which will be a just peace. This is the frame of the letter.
The backlash against progressives who signed the letter — including some of the most outspoken voices in the caucus like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — came most ostensibly from Jayapal, who is the face of the liberal faction. It was the latest setback for the congresswoman, who has worked for the better half of last year to help Biden and Democrats deliver on some of the party’s key legislative promises, often at the expense of some of the more liberal priorities. of his caucus.
Most notably, last fall Jayapal helped lead the bipartisan infrastructure package to the finish line after party divisions threatened its passage 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 humanitarian and security aid for Ukraine, while the Biden administration has shipped billions in weapons and equipment from stockpiles. military.
Last month, lawmakers approved about $12.3 billion in Ukraine-related aid under 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.
This is in addition to the more than $50 billion provided for in two previous bills.
Financial support for Ukraine drew strong bipartisan support in the Senate and House after the Russian invasion, but the 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 growing GOP skepticism about the cost of financial support to Kyiv.
Privately, GOP lawmakers who support Ukraine aid say there could be an opportunity to spend another tranche of aid in a year-end spending package, before Republicans take potentially control at the next Congress.
The story has been corrected to show Rep. Sara Jacobs is from California, not New York.