Home » Republican Disarray Delays House Vote to Ban Cluster Bomb Transfers

Republican Disarray Delays House Vote to Ban Cluster Bomb Transfers

A renewed congressional effort to ban U.S. transfers of cluster weapons could be one casualty of Congress’s inability to agree on spending bills ahead of a looming government shutdown.

Led by Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Sara Jacobs, D-Calif., a bipartisan group of House members are pushing an amendment to the annual defense appropriations bill that would ban the transfer of cluster munitions to all countries. The effort comes as the United States has been transferring such weapons to Ukraine, following a controversial decision by President Joe Biden in July.

While the House Rules Committee was slated to vote to advance the defense spending bill on Wednesday, House Republicans put those plans on hold because they did not have the votes to pass it in its current form. The bill must make it through the Rules Committee before individual amendments can be voted on. And even as Congress has to pass 12 funding bills before the next fiscal year begins on October 1, House Republicans this week opened up an impeachment inquiry into Biden, throwing a wrench into what already was a race against the clock to fund the government. 

On Thursday morning, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said he will aim to pass a continuing resolution next week in order to keep the government running. That would keep the government funded at current levels and give Congress more time to pass individual appropriations bills.

“Even though foreign policy is the kind of US policy that impacts by far the most number of lives worldwide, it too often gets pushed aside in favor of domestic squabbling. A bipartisan coalition set the stage for a high profile vote that could have, at a minimum, increased attention on how cluster bombs will hurt Ukrainian children for decades to come,” Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy, an advocacy group that has been lobbying lawmakers on defense amendments, wrote in a statement. “That vote, unfortunately, fell victim to Beltway political wrangling. Human rights and pro-restraint advocates on the left and right will undoubtedly continue our efforts to urge policymakers to prioritize mitigating the harm that US foreign policy causes to countless tens of millions, through wars, sanctions, and transfers of horrific weapons like cluster bombs.”

“Sending cluster munitions anywhere in the world makes the United States complicit in the unavoidable and inevitable civilian harm that follows.”

Cluster munitions — strings of small “bomblets” scattered over wide areas — are banned by 124 countries, for the damage they do upon impact and the lasting risks of undetonated bombs. The U.S., Ukraine, and Russia have not signed the international treaty banning their use. 

“Sending cluster munitions anywhere in the world makes the United States complicit in the unavoidable and inevitable civilian harm that follows,” Jacobs told The Intercept in a statement. “No amount of guardrails or promised precautions are enough because these weapons are unpredictable and maim and kill indiscriminately — potentially years after their intended use. The United States has a strong reputation for upholding human rights around the world — but that message is muddied when we’re willing to send these weapons that are infamous for the carnage they cause.”

Reasonable Boundaries

Jacobs, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., led an effort to ban cluster bomb transfers earlier this summer. While their measure gained momentum in the House, with Gaetz saying he would sign on, House Rules Committee Republicans voted it down, instead approving a new one led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. Greene’s sponsorship of the measure killed its chances of passage. The measure failed 147-276 on the House floor, with 98 Republicans and 49 Democrats in favor. Two Democrats voted “present,” while 14 members of both parties were nonvoters.

The new Gaetz-Jacobs amendment is co-sponsored by Republican Rep. Thomas Massie and Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Jill Tokuda, Jim McGovern, Andrea Salinas, Barbara Lee, and Jesús “Chuy” García.

Reid Smith, vice president of foreign policy at Stand Together, a Koch-backed group, welcomed the amendment as an effort to draw “reasonable boundaries” amid unprecedented levels of support for Ukraine. 

“When Ukraine’s survival hung in the balance, Congress accepted President Biden’s aid requests without hesitation,” Smith said. “Now that this conflict has ground into a brutal war of attrition, open-ended authorizations are demanding uncomfortable tradeoffs. For instance, having emptied our stockpiles of 155mm shells we’re stuck sending controversial cluster munitions. It’s good to see elected officials finally begin to demand reasonable boundaries for American support that’s more consistent with our strategic interests and moral compass.”

The amendment does not single out Ukraine, giving it a higher chance of approval by lawmakers who don’t want to be seen as unsupportive of an important U.S. ally. Indeed, some Democrats who did not support Greene’s amendment have nonetheless expressed opposition to the use of cluster bombs in Ukraine, an indication that another vote on the question could yield different results. 

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., voted against Greene’s amendment but has also voiced concerns about the use of cluster bombs in Ukraine. “I spent formative years of my life in Afghanistan looking at kids seeing young Afghan children walking around without arms and legs decades after cluster munitions were used by the Russians in the ’80s, and I don’t want to see that with Ukrainian children,” Crow, a military veteran, said when Biden announced his intentions to send cluster munitions to Ukraine.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., also voted against the amendment. “I believe a victory for Ukraine is an essential victory for democracies across the globe, but that victory cannot come at the expense of our American values and thus democracy itself,” she said at the time of Biden’s announcement. “Cluster munitions are indiscriminate, and I strongly oppose providing these weapons to Ukraine.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, is the co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus and voted “present” on Greene’s amendment. After Biden’s announcement, she said, “I hesitate to endorse a policy that could lead to American unexploded munitions being left scattered across regions of Ukraine that could cause harm to innocent civilians, especially farmers and children in the months and years to come.”

The lawmakers did not respond to The Intercept’s questions about their position on the Gaetz-Jacobs amendment.

Since Biden approved the transfer, the U.S. has transferred an uncounted amount of cluster munitions to Ukraine, whose military has readily deployed them. One Ukrainian official suggested to the Washington Post that there is no documentation process of when and where these bombs are dropped. The administration is now close to approving the shipment of long-range missiles equipped with cluster bombs, Reuters reported this week.

Cluster bombs are so dangerous because they often don’t explode on impact — meaning that their remnants lay dormant where they fall and may unpredictably explode many years down the line, threatening the lives of anyone who may cross paths with them.

U.S. policy generally bans the transfer of bombs with a dud rate higher than 1 percent, but Biden circumvented this rule and sent older bombs to Ukraine, which hold a higher threat of remaining unexploded. A 2022 report from the Congressional Research Service found that mine clearance experts “have frequently reported failure rates of 10% to 30%” among cluster bombs in American stockpiles.

Such dynamics harken back to the 1960s and ’70s, when the U.S. dropped substantial amounts of cluster munitions into Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In Laos alone, up to 27 million submunitions are estimated to still lie dormant, and around 20,000 people have been killed from the duds.

Correction: September 14, 2023, 5:12 p.m. ET
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Jacobs-Omar amendment specifically banned cluster bomb transfers to Ukraine. Their amendment applied to all countries.

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September 2023