Progressives’ Ukraine letter darkens Jayapal leadership prospects

An ill-timed push by a group of House progressives for a diplomatic agreement with Russia may have dashed the leadership prospects of the caucus’s chairwoman, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). 

The move by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has infuriated Democrats and blunted the image of unity on Ukraine the party wanted to put forward in the final days of campaigning before the midterms. 

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“I look forward to next year’s Progressive Caucus election and new leadership,” said one senior Democratic strategist involved with progressive candidates and on Capitol Hill. “Jayapal has lost the faith of her colleagues.”

Jayapal, a liberal in her third term representing Seattle, has made it well known in recent weeks that she’s eying a chance to enter the Democratic leadership ranks after the elections, when there could be an expansive, top-down shakeup of the party brass.

But the decision by her office to release a letter this week pressing President Biden to engage directly with Russia to bring the months-long conflict in Ukraine to “a rapid end” has dumbfounded many of Jayapal’s colleagues, who fear it weakened the president’s hand — and strengthened embattled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s — just as Ukrainian forces have turned the tide of the conflict in their favor. 

It also seems to have undermined her chances of winning their support for a leadership bid. 

“It’s a deadly error for her,” said a former House leadership aide who keeps in touch with lawmakers across the caucus. “That was a big screw-up. People were pissed — like, what are we doing on messaging?”

Like many ambitious Democrats angling for a leadership position, Jayapal has been quiet about what role she’s aiming to fill. That’s largely a function of the continued uncertainty surrounding the future of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top two lieutenants, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn (S.C.), none of whom have announced their post-election plans.

Still, Jayapal has made clear that she’s considering a run at leadership — in a “top” spot. 

Jayapal’s efforts to shape the Democratic Party have often stretched beyond the day-to-day legislative process in Congress and straddled the progressive-centrist divide. 

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Throughout Biden’s first term in office, she has been perceived as a helpful ally to his administration and even the president himself. The two have had personal conversations and she is in regular touch with senior White House officials, including chief of staff Ron Klain. 

Unlike some more outspoken members of the caucus, including those in the Squad, Democrats believe that Jayapal’s willingness to stay mostly within the guardrails of the administration’s priorities, while also pushing them to the left on key agenda items, has been one of her assets as chairwoman. 

That advocacy has borne fruit, as progressives have scored countless provisions in the major pieces of legislation — including the recent climate, tax and health care bill — enacted by Biden this Congress.

Defenders credit her discipline and ability to build consensus, often noting that she’s become an expert in several different policy areas in a short period of time. 

“I’ve worked with the CPC almost from the beginning when it was a very skimpy organization,” said Larry Cohen, a close ally of Jayapal who chairs Our Revolution, a group aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “The amount of time and creativity that she has put into that organization, you wouldn’t recognize it from what it was before.”

Cohen said that it was the work of House progressives under Jayapal’s tenure who moved the ball forward on many of Biden’s accomplishments.

“Anybody who thinks there is a strategy for real change without the Congressional Progressive Caucus I would call delusional,” said Cohen. “Her work ethic is at the highest level in terms of not self promotion, but focusing on the end result. She compromises to get things done, but also works the issues at almost [a] 168 hour a week limit.”

Still, this week’s Ukraine uproar was not the first time Jayapal and her progressive supporters have stirred controversy within the party for breaking with Biden on key policies.

Last year, as Biden sought to enact bipartisan legislation to fund national infrastructure projects, Jayapal and members of the caucus vowed to oppose that $1 trillion package unless it was accompanied by passage of another even larger bill: the $2.2 trillion climate, health and tax package known at the time as the Build Back Better Act.

The resulting stalemate lasted for months, frustrating centrist Democrats who wanted to secure a big bipartisan victory for Biden, whose approval rating had plummeted following the deadly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Even now, there’s lingering resentment among those moderates that the impasse was a self-inflicted wound on the party at large. 

The debacle early this week brought even more scrutiny to Jayapal’s leadership style and ability to execute on a strategy at a critical political moment.  The letter’s timing, which was released after early voting had started and as others prepare to go to the polls, had some Democrats cautioning that she might not be ready for an elevated spot.

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In offering a full retraction — after a bungled attempt at a clarification that left many Democrats more confused — Jayapal took partial responsibility for the letter’s release, but also made a point to involve her staff, a move that in itself was seen as lacking diplomacy and violating an unspoken rule in Washington.

“If you can’t roll out a letter correctly without throwing your team under the bus, what can you do?” the campaign strategist said. 

One progressive lawmaker and caucus member, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), took to Twitter to defend staffers working inside the Progressive Caucus, while others said the online chatter doesn’t help her cause. 

“If Twitter is real life, there’s an awful lot of people that are disappointed,” said Jim Manley, a former Senate aide, who has been critical of Jayapal’s handling of the caucus. 

A spokesperson from the Congressional Progressive Caucus declined to comment. 

Released Monday, the progressives’ letter arrived at a time of heightened concerns that an increasingly desperate Putin is preparing some form of nuclear attack in Ukraine. The group of 30 liberals called on Biden to combine the substantial military and economic aid the U.S. has provided to Kyiv with “a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” Such a settlement, they conceded, would likely involve “some form of sanctions relief.” 

Ukrainian leaders have resisted such negotiations, fearing they would inevitably lead to a loss of Ukrainian territory. They’ve vowed to fight until Russian forces are expelled, and Biden has made clear that his policy will be to back their tactical decisions. 

The blowback from fellow Democrats was swift, and it included repudiations from even some of the liberal lawmakers on the letter, who said they’d signed it months ago, when the Ukraine war was in a different phase, and were not warned that Jayapal’s office was releasing it this week. Some said they would never have endorsed such a message this month, given the recent success Ukraine has had militarily against the invading Russian forces.

“Diplomacy is one important tool in the process of making peace, but given the progression of the war, the war crimes and atrocities committed by Putin’s regime and the Russian army, I would not have signed this letter today,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a former chairman of the Progressive Caucus.

Adding to the frustrations, Democrats heading into the midterms have sought to portray Republicans as the party that’s unwilling to defend Ukraine — an argument fueled by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) recent warning that Republicans, if they take control of the House next year, would not write a “blank check” for assistance to Kyiv. 

“This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war,” Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.), a former Marine, tweeted on Monday. “Ukraine is on the march. Congress should be standing firmly behind @JoeBidens effective strategy, including tighter – not weaker! – sanctions.”

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