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Progressive Democrats withdraw a letter urging Biden to be more proactive in Ukraine

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Thirty members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to President Biden on Monday urging him to change his approach on the war in Ukraine and take a more proactive, diplomatic push with Russia. But today, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who leads that caucus, withdrew the letter, and she called it a distraction.

NPR political reporter Deepa Shivaram joins us now to talk through this back and forth. Hey there.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Deepa, a lot has been happening here, but I want to start with this letter. How did they want the Biden administration to change its strategy?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. Progressive Democrats who signed this letter said they want President Biden to focus on direct diplomatic talks with Russia in order to end the war in Ukraine. The members who signed the letter said they wanted Biden to continue providing military and economic support to Ukraine. But they also said that it's, quote, "America's responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to help end the war." And the letter is clear that they don't want any decisions to be made on behalf of Ukraine without Ukraine's cooperation. But they also talked about how there are billions of taxpayer dollars going into this conflict in the form of weapons and humanitarian aid. And that ongoing war has contributed to high costs of goods at home, including gas and food.

SUMMERS: OK, and what was the reaction like once that letter came out?

SHIVARAM: The response to the letter was pretty critical off the bat. There were several Democrats who came out against it, and even some of the members who signed on to the letter were distancing themselves and saying they were just operating off of the intelligence they had at the time. One Democrat who didn't sign the letter said it was an olive branch to a, quote, "war criminal." And a member of Ukraine's parliament tweeted and said she found the letter to be troubling and that you can't negotiate with Putin, who she called a terrorist, when they continue to kill.

SUMMERS: OK. And if I'm following this correctly, this letter got sent out Monday. There was all this backlash, and then the letter was retracted today. What was the explanation for withdrawing this letter?

SHIVARAM: The timing here is a little confusing. This letter was dated October 24, which was yesterday. But it was actually drafted over the summer. And, of course, since then, a lot has changed in regards to the war, and Russia has stepped up their attacks significantly. In fact, some Democrats who signed on to the letter said they wouldn't have signed it today. Representative Jayapal said the reason that the letter got sent out was because it was released by staff without vetting, and she accepted responsibility for that happening.

But she also said that because of the timing of the letter, their message to Biden is being incorrectly compared to what some Republicans are saying, which is to decrease aid to Ukraine. For example, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who would likely become the House speaker if Democrats lose their majority in the election, recently said that Americans won't write a blank check to Ukraine if they're sitting in a recession. On the flipside, Democrats have been consistently voting to fund support for Ukraine, and that conflation is why Jayapal called the letter a distraction and decided to withdraw it. So the confusing messaging here was also seen as getting in the way when there are some high stakes here for the party, like the midterm elections.

SUMMERS: OK. And have we heard anything from the Biden administration about this letter?

SHIVARAM: Yeah. John Kirby, who's the spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters yesterday that the administration had received the letter. He said that they appreciated the sentiments expressed but that the decision on when and how to negotiate with Russia should be left to Ukraine. And he said, at this time, negotiating with Putin isn't much of an option.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: And when you see and you listen to his rhetoric and you see the other things - the atrocities, the war crimes, the airstrikes against civilian infrastructure that the Russians are committing - it's clear Mr. Putin is in no mood to negotiate.

SHIVARAM: And Kirby also said that the administration has been working with Congress when it comes to providing support to Ukraine. And they said they'll continue to be transparent. And the White House has also said they'll continue to provide support to Ukraine as long as it takes.

SUMMERS: NPR's Deepa Shivaram. Thank you, as always.

SHIVARAM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.
Krishnadev Calamur is NPR's deputy Washington editor. In this role, he helps oversee planning of the Washington desk's news coverage. He also edits NPR's Supreme Court coverage. Previously, Calamur was an editor and staff writer at The Atlantic. This is his second stint at NPR, having previously worked on NPR's website from 2008-15. Calamur received an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.