- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2022

House Progressives are facing sharp backlash from fellow Democrats after more than two dozen liberal lawmakers penned a letter to President Biden urging him to more assertively push for peace talks in Ukraine.

The letter, spearheaded by Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairwoman Pramila Jayapal or Washington, marked a clear break within the president’s Democratic Party on the strategy for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

“This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss, Massachusetts Democrat, wrote on Twitter in response to the peace-talk push. “Ukraine is on the march. Congress should be standing firmly behind [President Biden’s] effective strategy, including tighter — not weaker! — sanctions.”

Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat, said the call for diplomacy risks legitimizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There is a moral and strategic peril in sitting down with Putin too early,” he wrote on Twitter. “Sometimes, a bully must be shown the limits of his power before diplomacy can work.”

The shakeup among Democrats adds to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s warning last week that Congress will not provide a “blank check” for Ukraine if the GOP, as expected, wins the majority in next month’s midterm elections.

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It also undermines Democrats’ attacks on what they call “Putin Republicans” for pledging more scrutiny of Mr. Biden’s massive military aid packages to Ukraine.

Rep. Mark Pocan, the former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who also signed onto Monday’s letter, ripped the timing of the letter, which he said was first written in July.

“I have no idea why it went out now. Bad timing,” the Wisconsin Democrat wrote on Twitter. “It was trying to get to a cease-fire & diplomacy as others were banging war drums, not criticizing Biden. I’ve supported the efforts & will continue.”

The letter, which cited the “risk of catastrophic escalation” if Mr. Biden doesn’t “redouble efforts” for a cease-fire, was signed by 30 House Democrats.

“If there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine,” the lawmakers wrote. “The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war, with both its attendant certainties and catastrophic and unknowable risks.”

The lawmakers said those efforts should include direct talks between the U.S. and Russia to “explore prospects for a new European security arrangement acceptable to all parties” — a move that would sharply contrast with White House policy of holding no negotiations “about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

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In response to the letter, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby reiterated that policy.

“We’re not going to have conversations with Russian leadership without the Ukrainians being represented, and that remains the policy and the approach,” he told reporters. “[Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has said that while he obviously would like to find an end to this war, he does not believe it is time now to sit down and have a negotiated settlement with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

The lawmakers also suggested Mr. Biden would have strong Democratic support for aid for Ukraine if he followed their advice, urging the president to “pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push.’

“As legislators responsible for the expenditure of tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in military assistance in the conflict, we believe such involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement,” they wrote.

The letter marked the first indication that unanimous support within the Democratic Party for Mr. Biden’s Ukraine policy could be at risk unless future funds come with diplomatic demands as well.

Following the backlash from their colleagues, Ms. Jayapal, issued a statement attempting to walk back the perceived break within the party over the president’s strategy or that Democratic support for continued aid was in question.

“Let me be clear: we are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to supporting Ukraine in their fight for their democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and outrageous Russian invasion, and nothing in the letter advocates for a change in that support,” she wrote.

“Diplomacy is an important tool that can save lives — but it is just one tool,” Ms. Jayapal wrote. “As we also made explicitly clear in our letter and will continue to make clear, we support President Biden and his administration’s commitment to nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

As the backlash poured in, Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat and signatory to the letter, put out a statement declaring his “steadfast support of the Ukrainian people.” 

“I will continue to support appropriations to aid Ukrainian self-determination and ensure the people of Ukraine have the tools they need to protect their hard-won democracy.”

The scramble to walk back Monday’s plea is likely to disappoint progressive anti-war stalwarts outside of Congress who are traditionally loyal members of the progressive base.

The Progressive Democrats of America’s Foreign Policy Co-Chair Marcy Winograd praised the lawmakers’ letter but said it did not go far enough in pushing for an end to the war.

“The call for a ceasefire is an important first step, and should be followed up with congressional votes to stop sending weapons to fuel a protracted war,” she said. “The solution is not on the battlefield, but at the negotiating table.”

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

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