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Jayapal angers Democrats over Ukraine letter

Jayapal angers Democrats over Ukraine letter

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This article has been updated to correct that some signatories sit on foreign affairs committees rather than the Foreign Affairs Committee.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin began escalating his threat to use nuclear weapons this summer over United States aid to Ukraine, the Congressional Progressive Caucus wanted to respond.

A a two-page letter to President Biden, drafted in July, should have confirmed the belief of House liberals that diplomatic engagement is critical at such points of escalation to avoid nuclear war. It was not intended to force the administration to take a radically different approach to foreign policy, according to several people familiar with the letter who, along with others who spoke to The Washington Post, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private discussions.

But publication of the letter was delayed for months, becomes public on Monday and, in turn, shocks the signatories and many in Parliamentary Club of Democrats. Absent the critical moment of Putin’s nuclear remarks, the co-signatories were bombarded with questions from their Democratic colleagues and constituents about why they signed a letter that gave the impression that liberals advocated isolationism and direct negotiations with the authoritarian leader.

At the center of the frustration is Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who was instrumental in coordinating the letter and its release, people familiar with the letter told The Post. The lack of clarity around the timing of its release particularly irked several co-signatories, who said that Jayapal should have communicated it and that it was not unbecoming of a leader.

The backlash led the CPC to do so revoke the letter Tuesday afternoon, when Jayapal accepted “responsibility for this” but blamed employees for publishing it “without verification.” Several Democrats, however, privately criticized Jayapal for blaming the staff, noting that she gave The Post a statement about the letter after it was published Monday.

The CPC and Jayapal’s office have since declined several requests to comment on how the letter was drafted and why it was released on Monday.

The internal uproar has brought back to the surface persistent tensions within the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives at a time when the party is struggling to retain its majority. The letter, several lawmakers and aides said, could undermine Democrats’ arguments just two weeks before Election Day that they are the party that will continue to support Ukraine, unlike House Republicans, who have signaled that would reduce aid if they get a majority.

It has also called into question Jayapala’s ability to lead as she strives launch offer challenging Rep. Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) if another leadership position opens up for the next term.

Dismay and deep frustration were expressed by several MPs and associates across the caucus on Wednesday, but surprise at Jayapal’s actions was not. Several said that Jayapal’s ambition to rise to senior leadership often made him act unilaterally and engage in issues and conversations.

Some House Democrats raised their eyebrows when they saw The Washington Post letter reporting Monday, which included a fresh statement from Jayapal. The leadership was also unaware of the letter, according to aides, which arrived as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with leaders in Croatia to reassure them that the United States would continue to support the Ukrainians.

While liberals often come to Jayapala’s defense for her ability to insert herself into key negotiations, some in the caucus she leads have all but rejected her bid for broader leadership. While no one is trying to challenge her as CPC chair, several liberals noted that the debacle left questions about whether they would even support her staying in the role.

“She can kiss her leadership prospects goodbye,” said one person familiar with the letter effort.

Jayapal’s supporters and some frustrated by the situation acknowledged that she worked to expand the CPC’s influence and bridge relations with the White House so liberals could be active part of ongoing deliberations. In campaign calls to colleagues, Jayapal said she played a role as CPC chairwoman in passing critical legislation, including a bipartisan infrastructure bill and pushing administration to sign executive orders on liberal priorities.

It’s a topic that has irked moderates who have often found themselves on the opposite end of debates during the legislative process. Liberals opposed passage of a bipartisan infrastructure bill last year unless a $3.5 trillion social spending package known as Build Back Better was attached, warning that scrapping it would prevent passage of Biden’s priority legislation. The tensions created a headache for the party, which had a narrow majority to pass the bill in Congress.

Moderates, including the most vulnerable members, have often been frustrated by liberal demands they believe have stalled the passage of legislation they wanted to campaign on. It’s an underlying tension that has remained consistent since Democrats regained the House majority in 2018.

The immediate concern of some members Wednesday was that their colleagues are undermining the Democratic united front in support of Ukraine as House Republicans begin to argue that the U.S. they no longer send fiscal aid to help them defeat Putin. Monday’s letter asked the administration to consider other avenues for fiscal aid to Ukraine to prevent an endless war. But a statement withdrawing the letter acknowledged that the language “correlates” with what Republicans have been discussing. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” the statement said.

“We need to stay focused as Democrats to win elections and maintain the majority, and as a nation, Democrats and Republicans need to make sure we support Ukrainians,” said Rep. Bradley Schneider (D-Ill.), who chairs the moderate New Democratic Coalition Action Fund. “This is an attack on democracy on a global scale, and that’s why we definitely have a stake here. We should all be concerned about the danger of escalation. We also cannot be bullied by Putin.”

Without the backdrop of escalating talks about nuclear war, the co-signatories – some of whom serve on foreign relations committees – have publicly noted that they would not have signed the letter today. Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) tweeted, “Timing in diplomacy is everything.” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement clarifying that he “remained steadfast in his support of the Ukrainian people” and Biden’s leadership.

The CPC’s unilateral actions were not surprising to some front-line Democrats, the most vulnerable swing-district members working to keep their seats and House majorities. They believe that fight different battles but safe Democrats like Jayapal who, they say, can think about other priorities without risking electoral repercussions from their constituents.

In an interview earlier this month, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) noted that her “peers from light districts are so sensitive” to criticism when trying to reach a compromise.

“One criticism from an activist group or someone vocal on Twitter, they’re like, ‘Elissa, we have to change this.’ I’m like, ‘What happened?’ And they say, ‘My activists are getting really upset.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, but your activists are not the average person.’ And they’re like, ‘No, no, no. It’s really important,’ she recalled in a sentiment echoed by other Democrats on the front line.

One person close to the progressive caucus said activist groups can often pressure or influence the caucus, especially on foreign policy. It remains unclear whether outside groups influenced the content of the letter or the timing of its release, but several endorsed the letter, including The Quincy Institute, which was one of several outside organizations that endorsed and advocated for the letter after seeing an early version.

“The CPC is often outside the norm on foreign policy and that’s a good place to be during the Trump administration, but not when there’s a big war and in October midterms in a Democratic administration,” the person said.

While questions remain about the timing of the letter’s release, some lawmakers and aides believe the gist of it is, singling out Biden warned earlier this month The “prospect of Armageddon” is the biggest since the Cuban Missile Crisis because of Putin’s remarks. The letter states that Biden himself said that there would have to be a “negotiated solution” to end the war.

One person who has developed a close relationship with Jayapala over the years is White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who did not come to her defense on Wednesday.

Still, many Democrats, and even some Biden administration officials, did not find the letter highly objectionable. They noted that progressives have emphasized their support for Biden and his work, maintaining support for the war at home and abroad and that they have not threatened to cut off funding, but they consider the release of the letter clumsy and untimely.

The White House didn’t think the letter was a big deal when officials first received it, a White House aide said, noting that lawmakers went to great lengths to praise Biden’s approach to Ukraine and express support for the economic and military packages.

Officials did not see it as a major break from Biden’s policies, but made clear they would not change their approach because of the letter. White House spokesman John Kirby said the United States would not hold talks with Russia without representatives of the Ukrainian leadership. Kirby also noted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he doesn’t think it’s time to start a deal with Putin and that US officials respect his opinion.

“I thought the letter was pretty harmless,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “But my only concern was that it would create the impression that there is a large group of Democrats who are in favor of urgent diplomacy, which is clearly not the case given that many of the signatories of the letter did not seem to understand what the implications of that would be.”





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