Biden finds few Capitol Hill allies amid Afghanistan backlash

WASHINGTON (thehill): President Biden is getting little cover from Congress as he faces broad backlash over his handling of the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan.

Some Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), have rallied to Biden’s side and circulated White House talking points to their members. Pelosi also urged Democrats during a conference call to stand behind Biden, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

But the quick fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, images of chaos coming out of Kabul and questions about how, and how quickly, Americans and tens of thousands of Afghan allies and their families will get evacuated have merged into broad, bipartisan frustration between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Though Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban as “wholly inadequate,” he also didn’t spare Biden.

“I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal,” Menendez said.

Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, issued a blistering rebuke of the U.S. withdrawal under Biden, calling it a “catastrophe.”

“At minimum, the Biden administration owed our Afghan allies of 20 years a real plan,” Langevin wrote.

Other Democrats stopped short of criticizing Biden directly but broke with his handling of the exit strategy.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said that while the U.S. military shouldn’t have stayed “indefinitely,” the drawdown “should have been carefully planned to prevent violence and instability, and to ensure that the hard-fought progress gained over the past two decades—particularly when it comes to Afghan women and girls—would not be lost.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), who is up for reelection next year, added that “the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan reveals a failure to prepare for a scenario where the Afghan government and military would refuse to fight the Taliban’s advances when put to the test.”

The pushback over the handling of the drawdown in Afghanistan is for many Democrats about the execution of the plan to withdraw U.S. troops, not the actual endgame itself. Most in the party support ending the U.S. military’s involvement in Afghanistan. 

It marks one of the significant rifts between Biden and his own party on Capitol Hill in the nearly seven months of their unified government. And it comes at a crucial moment when he and Democratic leaders are already facing headaches trying to unite warring factions behind the party’s sweeping infrastructure and spending package.

The administration has been working behind-the-scenes to try to loop in lawmakers and get staff up to date. Administration officials briefed both the House and Senate over the weekend. Senate staffers had an unclassified briefing on Tuesday and will have a classified briefing on Wednesday, according to two Senate sources.

Pelosi’s office is also working to finalize a closed-door briefing for all lawmakers for next week, when they’ll be back in Washington, according to a spokesman.

But Biden’s headaches with congressional Democrats over Afghanistan are unlikely to go away quickly.

House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) became the first committee chairman to formally invite administration officials to testify. He’s unlikely to be the last.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that he would work with other committees to “to ask tough but necessary questions about why we weren’t better prepared for a worst-case scenario,” and Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said he’ll hold hearings on “what went wrong in Afghanistan and lessons learned to avoid repeating those mistakes.”

Meanwhile, Menendez, Meeks’s Senate counterpart, said he’ll use his panel to probe both Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban and Biden’s “flawed execution” of the withdrawal. Republicans on the panel want to hear directly from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“The Committee will seek a full accounting for these shortcomings as well as assess why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed so quickly. Congress was told repeatedly that the Afghan Defense and Security Forces were up to the task, that it had the troops, equipment and willingness to fight. …. The American and Afghan people clearly have not been told the truth about the ANDSF’s capacity and deserve answers,” Menendez said.

Republicans, including those who have previously been supportive of Trump’s May 1st timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces, have launched fierce criticism of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal.

“The precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan is an utter disgrace and a stain on our national honor,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who has been critical of pulling out troops, told reporters in Kentucky.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who previously praised Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops when he announced his timeline in April, this week called the strategy a “disastrous display of incompetence that has provoked a humanitarian crisis.”

Biden is betting that the American public will ultimately support ending the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan, which at two decades is the country’s longest war, despite the current barrage of troubling headlines.

“After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces,” Biden said during an address from the White House.

And some Democrats, including members of leadership and rank-and-file members, have offered full-throated praise for Biden.

Pelosi said Biden “is to be commended for the clarity of purpose of his statement on Afghanistan and his action.” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sent a warning shot to Republicans, saying that “those who sat silently when Donald Trump pursued a hasty U.S. withdrawal and now cry howls of outrage reek of hypocrisy.”

Polling this week is sending up early red flags for Democrats and Biden.

Forty-nine percent of voters say they support Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released this week, marking a 20 percentage point drop since mid-April.

Democrats are signaling big concern over the ability to get Afghans who have aided the U.S. military effort and their families out of Afghanistan. Lawmakers have been signaling for months that they didn’t think the approval of visas was moving fast enough and recently allocated new funding and tried to loosen restrictions to help expedite the process as part of a Capitol security supplemental.

Forty-six senators, comprised almost totally of Democrats, sent a letter this week to Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urging them to take quick action to protect Afghan women, including by increasing processing capacity within the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and tapping an interagency refugee coordinator.

Several congressional offices in both parties have said they are fielding calls this week from constituents with family members still in Afghanistan, as well as by multiple people on the ground who were held up at checkpoints and threatened with violence by the Taliban as they sought to flee.

White House staffers have provided a State Department phone line to House and Senate staffers for Afghanistan inquiries, including for questions about Afghans and their families stuck in the pipeline to get approval to travel to the United States. But that’s done little to dial down pressure from members of Congress.

 “They have committed themselves to the broadest possible evacuation of people in several categories,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said during a press conference about the administration’s evacuation efforts.

“Now that commitment has to be operational,” he said. “The question is, is this going to be Saigon or Dunkirk? Are we going to leave people behind as we did in South Vietnam or are we going to hold the beach until everybody is taken off that beach?”