Democrats withdraw letter urging Biden to rethink Ukraine war strategy

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The Congressional Progressive Caucus has withdrawn a letter signed by 30 House liberals and sent to the White House on Monday that urged President Biden to negotiate directly with Russia to end the war in Ukraine.

The retraction comes a day after the letter, led by the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), sparked a fierce backlash from many Democrats as well as from Ukrainian officials who argued that negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin was unrealistic.

They also worried the letter could put more pressure on Biden as he tries to maintain domestic support for the war effort, at a time when the region is heading into a potentially difficult winter and Republicans are threatening to cut aid to Ukraine if they win back Congress.

On Tuesday, Jayapal said the letter had been drafted several months ago and “released by staff without oversight.” She also sought to distance Democrats from recent comments by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who suggested a GOP-led House would not support additional aid to Ukraine.

“As Chair of the Caucus, I accept responsibility for this,” Jayapal said in a statement. “The closeness of these statements created the unfortunate appearance that Democrats, who have strongly and unanimously supported and voted for every package of military, strategic and economic aid to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seeks to pull the plug on US support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian forces.”

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In the past, several of the letter’s signatories have also denied their support for the letter, saying it was written months ago. Late Monday, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to sympathize with someone who was critical of the letter on Twitter.

“Listen. First of all, this was written in July and I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing,” Pocan tweeted.

“Timing in diplomacy is everything,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), one of the letter’s other signatories, tweeted Tuesday morning. “I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I didn’t want to sign today. We need to continue to support Ukraine financially and militarily to give them the leverage they need to end this war.”

In the original letter to the White House, dated Oct. 24 and first reported by The Washington Post, the lawmakers urged Biden to pursue a “proactive diplomatic push that redoubles efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.”

Liberal Democrats noted that the war’s disastrous consequences are increasingly being felt far beyond Ukraine, including increased food and gas prices in the United States and increases in the price of wheat, fertilizer and fuel that have created global food shortages, not to mention the danger of a nuclear attack from Moscow.

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The letter was signed by some of the best-known and most outspoken liberal Democrats in Congress, including Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Ro Khanna (Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.).

So far, their position remains a minority in the Democratic Party, which has overwhelmingly supported Biden’s condemnations of Russia and his spearheading of a global coalition to ensure massive support for Ukraine. Biden has framed the conflict as part of his broader view that the world is witnessing a historic confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy.

White House spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the administration appreciated lawmakers’ “very thoughtful concerns” but signaled no change in administration strategy on Ukraine.

“We will not have talks with the Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented,” Kirby said during a briefing with reporters on Monday. “Mr Zelensky must decide – because it is his country – what success looks like and when to negotiate.”

Privately, some officials questioned the timing of the letter, which came two weeks before the midterm elections and a week after McCarthy said the GOP might oppose more aid to Ukraine.

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Jayapal issued a statement Monday evening “clarifying” the position the progressives outlined in the letter, emphasizing that they still supported Ukraine and Biden’s commitment to ensure Ukraine is represented in any discussion about its future.

“Let me be clear: We are united as democrats in our unequivocal commitment to support Ukraine in its fight for its democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion,” Jayapal said. “Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives – but it is only one tool.”

Democrats were not alerted that the letter would be released Monday, including those who had signed the letter over the summer, according to three congressional aides, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. A person close to the progressive caucus, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, said it was odd to publicly release a letter with only 30 signatures out of the 220 House Democrats.

Many blamed Jayapal for the misstep, and several aides said they believed it could hurt her chances of winning a seat in the Democratic leadership. Jayapal has made initial calls to her colleagues to express interest in running for leadership, leaving the impression among some members that she would challenge Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.), who is also a member of the progressive caucus, for a presumed No. 2 spot in the party.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.



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