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Biden Warns Russia Against Using Nuclear Weapons as ‘Dirty Bomb’ Accusations Fly

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Credit…Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Progressive House Democrats on Tuesday retracted their call for President Biden to engage in direct diplomatic talks with Russia over a Ukraine cease-fire, an abrupt retreat that exposed Democratic divisions and the first public hints of dissent in Congress over the war.

What began this summer as an effort among liberal Democrats to persuade Mr. Biden that he had political support to pursue diplomacy for ending the conflict imploded on Tuesday after an extraordinary 24 hours.

First came a letter from the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus pressing the president to seek a “rapid end to the conflict,” then a clarifying statement to respond to a hail of criticism from other Democrats, and ultimately a complete retraction as members of the group scrambled to distance themselves from their own missive, grasping for someone else to blame.

The letter, released on Monday, called on the Biden administration to “seek a realistic framework for a cease-fire” and to “pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.”

By Tuesday, Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, the chairwoman of the caucus and the letter’s principal author, had taken it all back. Ms. Jayapal faulted unnamed aides for releasing the letter, which she said had been drafted several months ago “but unfortunately was released by staff without vetting.”

The unusual turnabout came after a biting backlash from other Democrats, who accused the 30 lawmakers who signed the document of undermining support for Kyiv at a critical time in its war against Russian aggression, and of sowing division within the party just two weeks before the midterm elections. It was a striking show of internal Democratic rifts just as the party is in the final stretch of an uphill fight to keep control of Congress, and it pointed to a subtle but distinct shift in how lawmakers are approaching the war in Ukraine.

Over the last year, as Congress has approved more than $60 billion for Ukraine — the largest amount of military aid the United States has committed to any country in a single year in nearly half a century, since the Vietnam War — there has been little in the way of dissent or debate from lawmakers in either party. The aid has been approved by overwhelming margins, and members of Congress in both political parties have largely kept to themselves their questions about the Biden administration’s strategy for American involvement.

The outraged response to the progressives’ letter this week — including streams of biting messages on Twitter and private calls from upset donors — and the ensuing retraction suggested that support for Ukraine in Congress remains strong, and that the appetite for openly questioning the administration’s strategy is still relatively weak.

But it also pointed to growing uneasiness among antiwar Democrats about the scope and consequences of American involvement in a war that has dragged on for months, just as Republicans pressing to take the majority in Congress are more openly questioning money for Ukraine.

And it forecast a potentially rougher road ahead for Mr. Biden in making the case domestically for robust American investment in the war, at a time when Western officials have grown more concerned that Russia is searching for a pretext to use a nuclear weapon as a warning to the West.

In the House, a substantial number of Republicans aligned with former President Donald J. Trump and his “America First” positions have consistently voted against the aid packages for Ukraine, even as leaders such as Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, have toiled to keep the party united in favor of such support. A new Republican majority would be under pressure to challenge the administration on the war more aggressively.

And some Democrats argue it is high time for Congress to start debating the conflict more openly.

Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California and a signer of the letter, said in an interview on Tuesday that he had voted to arm Ukraine in the face of President Vladimir V. Putin’s brutal war and would continue to do so. But he added, “History shows that silencing debate in Congress about matters of war and peace never ends well.”

“It is my responsibility as a United States congressman to make sure we are doing everything possible to mitigate the risks of nuclear war, to ensure that the conflict doesn’t escalate and to see as many creative pathways for a just, negotiated settlement,” Mr. Khanna said.

Mr. Khanna’s concern about “silencing debate” appeared to refer to the intense wave of criticism that had washed over liberal lawmakers who signed on to the letter. Third Way, a center-left think tank based in Washington, said the letter had effectively dishonored Ukrainians’ “courageous sacrifice by suggesting they give up everything they’ve been fighting for.”

“This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal who’s losing his war,” Representative Jake Auchincloss, Democrat of Massachusetts and a former Marine, wrote on Twitter. “Ukraine is on the march. Congress should be standing firmly behind @JoeBidens effective strategy, including tighter — not weaker! — sanctions.”

The denunciations continued even after the group retracted the letter on Tuesday, and as several progressive signers were frantically trying to disavow or explain it.

Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, tried on Monday night to calm Twitter users who had tagged him in angry messages. He by turns agreed that the timing of the letter could have been better — “I have no idea why a July letter went out now. Misses the point,” read one post — and defended its sentiment: “I’m not sure a lessening of bombing and death is ever a bad idea???” read another.

In her lengthy statement withdrawing the letter, Ms. Jayapal said its timing had allowed detractors to portray it “as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over.”

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who is in line to be speaker should his party win control of the House in next month’s elections, said in a recent interview that Republicans would be unwilling to “write a blank check” to Ukraine, suggesting that they would raise questions about future funding requests for the war.

“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,” Ms. Jayapal said on Tuesday. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, on Tuesday released a nearly 900-word statement about the retraction (the letter itself was 800 words long) that affirmed the historic imperative of an outright military victory in Ukraine.

“It is important to be on the right side of a just war, and it is even more important to be on the right side and win,” he wrote.

“Timing in diplomacy is everything,” Representative Sara Jacobs, Democrat of California, wrote on Twitter. “I signed this letter on June 30, but a lot has changed since then. I wouldn’t sign it today.”

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