WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of progressive Democrats in Congress said Tuesday they withdrew a letter to the White House urging President Joe Biden to start direct diplomatic talks with Russia after it sparked an uproar among Democrats and questions to the strength of the US had raised 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 party’s liberal flank.
“The letter was drafted several months ago but unfortunately was released by staff without verification,” the Washington Democrat wrote in a statement. As chair of the caucus, Jayapal said she takes responsibility for it.
The unusual withdrawal ended a tense 24-hour period for Democrats. Many reacted angrily to what appeared to be waning support for the president’s Ukraine strategy, which comes just weeks before a midterm election that will jeopardize its majority in Congress.
The back-and-forth shed light on the fragile nature of Biden’s relationship with the progressive wing of his party and raised clear questions about their ability to work together not only on funding Ukraine — which seems safe for now — but also on more pressing issues a top priority for the country liberals.
The letter urged Biden to combine unprecedented economic and military support for Ukraine with a “proactive diplomatic push and redouble efforts to find a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”
“The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknown risks,” the letter said.
Jayapal said the letter was unfairly confused with recent comments from Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who warned Republicans would not write a “blank check” for Ukraine if they won the House majority in November win back.
“The proximity of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that the Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted in favor of every package of military, strategic and economic aid to the Ukrainian people, are somehow allied with the Republicans, who are trying to unplug the US to draw support” for Ukraine, Jayapal said.
Still, Jayapal did not deny the contents of the letter or the pressure on Biden to engage diplomatically. Members of the caucus 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 at the time, according to two Democrats familiar with the matter, who were granted anonymity to discuss intra-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. “Today I wouldn’t sign it.”
“We must continue to support Ukraine economically and militarily to give them the pressure they need to end this war,” she said.
Despite the recantation and the messy behind-the-scenes process, some Democratic lawmakers said they still supported the sentiments behind the letter, arguing that it was Congress’ prerogative to debate the issue as it continued to provide billions of dollars in aid approved for Ukraine.
“I voted for arms to Ukraine and will continue to support the supply of arms to Ukraine to stand up to Putin’s brutal aggression,” D-Calif. Rep. Ro Khanna said in an interview on Tuesday.
“At the same time, it is my duty to ensure that we reduce the risk of nuclear war, that we ensure that the conflict does not escalate, and that we work towards a negotiated settlement that will bring about a just peace.” That is the scope of the letter.”
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday the White House had received the letter and appreciated progressives’ “very thoughtful concerns” about the conflict in Ukraine.
“You express your support for the President’s approach in this letter, and we applaud that, too,” Kirby said.
The backlash against the progressives who signed the letter – including some of the caucus’ most outspoken voices like MPs Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar – has been most notable against 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 her faction’s more liberal priorities.
Most notably last fall, Jayapal helped push the bipartisan infrastructure package across the finish line after party divisions threatened its passage in the House of Representatives. The recent mishap also casts doubt on her 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 shipped billions worth of weapons and equipment from military stockpiles.
Last month, lawmakers approved about $12.3 billion in Ukraine-related aid as part of a bill that will fund the federal government through Dec. 16. The money included aid to Ukraine’s 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 received strong bipartisan support in the Senate and House of Representatives after the Russian invasion, but the conservative opposition was present from the start. Republicans had the only votes against a $40 billion aid package in the spring.
Recent comments by McCarthy have more clearly reflected the GOP’s growing skepticism about the cost of supporting Kyiv financially.
Privately, GOP lawmakers who support aid to Ukraine say there may be an opportunity to pass another tranche of aid in a year-end spending package before Republicans potentially take control in the next Congress.
Corrected story to show Rep. Sara Jacobs is from California, not New York.