House

Progressives go on damage control after Ukraine diplomacy letter

House progressives are doing damage control after retreating from a letter that stirred outrage among Democrats by questioning President Biden’s handling of the Russia-Ukraine war two weeks before the midterm elections.

The letter, blamed Tuesday on poor staff work, raised questions about the political acumen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and its leader, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who is eyeing a run at leadership in the next Congress. 

“The letter was drafted several months ago, but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting. As Chair of the Caucus, I accept responsibility for this,” Jayapal wrote in a Tuesday statement. 

The letter, which asked Biden to explore diplomacy with Russia to end the war, muddled the Democrats’ message that a GOP takeover of the House could undermine U.S. unity behind Ukraine.

Just last week, Democrats had blasted House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) for saying there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine from a GOP House, a statement that led to pushback from various Republicans including former Vice President Mike Pence. 

“I believe in the power of diplomacy, and I believe it’s always better to talk to people than not,” said Jim Manley, who served as a senior adviser to the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “But a key part of diplomacy is timing. And the timing here is absolutely lousy.”

“It’s embarrassing for the signers, it undercuts not only the administration but the Ukrainians at a key moment in time,” he added. 

It also gave a political gift of sorts to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to put pressure on Ukraine’s government to make concessions to Moscow. Putin illegally annexed four territories in eastern Ukraine after what much of the international community called “sham” elections. The annexations came as Russia has lost territory amid a Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

The success of that counteroffensive has left Ukraine in no mood to offer concessions to Russia, which is the aggressor in the war and in 2014 invaded and annexed the region of Crimea from Ukraine. And the Biden administration has said arming Ukraine is the best way to strengthen Kyiv’s hand in eventual negotiations.

In rescinding her letter, Jayapal tried to assuage Democrats’ concerns that her caucus was sending a message that goes against the White House at a critical juncture. She had previously raised the idea that there are other ways for ending Russia’s war in Ukraine and that the Biden administration should consider direct talks with Moscow.

But by Tuesday, as pressure escalated among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in Democratic campaigns, she issued a total reversal of her group’s stance, a move that is exceptionally rare among progressives who are used to digging in their heels. 

Jayapal said that the initial release unintentionally muddied the water between where Democrats and Republicans stand. 

“Because of the timing, our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over,” she wrote. 

“The proximity 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 assistance to the Ukrainian people, are somehow aligned with Republicans who seek to pull the plug on American support for President Zelensky and the Ukrainian forces.”

Multiple sources close to the letter’s drafting told The Hill that it was written during the summer months, and they were unaware of why a lawmaker in a leadership position would not consider the global implications of the ask and the sensitive nature of the midterms before distributing it. 

“The screw up here is the lack of coordination with signers,” said a Democratic congressional source. “You just don’t do that. You don’t hold on to a letter for like four months.”

Some outside advocacy groups have pressed progressives to push for diplomacy, but those groups did not want to make the message so close to Election Day. 

“At least one of the NGOs who endorsed the letter really didn’t want to go through with it right now, but they pressed ahead,” the congressional source told The Hill.

But not all groups shared that view. Code Pink, a grassroots group advocating for peace, put out a statement expressing its disappointment over the blowback to the letter.

“It is sad that we live in such a political climate where being an advocate for peace and a policymaker that seeks diplomacy is met with such fierce opposition and political backlash,” the group said. 

Progressives in the House previously battled with Biden over a massive health, tax and climate package last fall, holding up passage of a separate infrastructure bill to win leverage. The standoff was widely seen as hurting Democrats and Biden, whose approval rating sank during those negotiations and remains underwater even a year later.

The short-lived pushback on Ukraine was a reminder of that infighting, all just weeks from an election where Democrats are worried they will lose their House majority — and possibly the Senate as well.

It left Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) trying to ease fears about where her caucus stands when it comes to Biden and Ukraine. 

“On behalf of the Congress, I made absolutely clear that America’s support for Ukraine will continue until victory is won,” Pelosi said during a summit in Croatia.

Few progressives on Tuesday were willing to defend Jayapal or the Progressive Caucus’s messages, particularly as they shifted over the past two days. 

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), in an interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC, noted that while she was a progressive, she was not a signatory to the letter. She deflected a question about whether sending it had been a mistake. 

Others privately took shots at Jayapal, arguing the misstep was part of a broader problem.

“Jayapal can blame her staff all she wants, but this is a small part of a long record of poor leadership and management of the Progressive Caucus,” said a Democratic strategist who works on progressive down-ballot campaigns. “I look forward to next year’s Progressive Caucus election.”

Left-wing Democrats often advocate for diplomatic solutions to foreign wars, but some said the debacle over the letter would make their efforts more difficult. 

“That’s what’s a bummer,” said the first Democratic congressional source. “I think it raised some important points, but if the goal here, as I think it should be, is to protect political space for diplomacy, this seems to have done the opposite.”

Tags Biden Congressional Progressive Caucus Harry Reid Jim Manley Kevin McCarthy Pramila Jayapal Pramila Jayapal Russia-Ukraine war
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