WASHINGTON (AP) — A bitterly divided House panel on Tuesday voted to condemn President Barack Obama for the swap of five Taliban leaders for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was held prisoner in Afghanistan for five years.
The Republican-led Armed Services Committee backed a nonbinding resolution that disapproves of the exchange and faults Obama for failing to notify Congress 30 days in advance of the swap, as required by law. The vote was 34-25 with two Democrats — Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Mike McIntyre of North Carolina — joining Republicans in support of the measure.
The bipartisan resolution raises national security concerns about the transfer of the five Taliban, who had been held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than a decade, and the “repercussions of negotiating with terrorists.” The measure also expresses relief that Bergdahl has returned safely to the United States.
The full House is expected to consider the measure in the fall, just a few weeks before the midterm elections.
The Obama administration has come under harsh criticism from many in Congress, especially Republicans, who have said Bergdahl was a deserter and the United States gave up too much for his freedom. Several lawmakers have cited intelligence suggesting the high-level Taliban officials could return to the Afghanistan battlefield.
Five senior Taliban were released from detention at Guantanamo in exchange for Bergdahl, who had disappeared from his post in Paktika province in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. The five Taliban are to remain in Qatar for a year.
The administration has defended the swap and its decision to keep Congress in the dark, saying concern about Bergdahl’s health and safety required speedy action.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff has unanimously supported the exchange, insisting that the United States has a sacred commitment to men and women who serve that it will never leave anyone behind on the battlefield. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the swap in May was “likely our last, best opportunity” to free Bergdahl.
During the hearing, Republicans on the Armed Services panel accused Obama of breaking the law, with Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., referring to a “lawless presidency” in which the president has failed to live up to his oath of office. Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va., who pushed for the resolution, said if Congress fails to act now, future presidents will ignore the law.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the committee, said the five Taliban were not eligible for release and warned of setting a precedent of negotiating with terrorists.
Democrats maintained that the resolution was one step toward impeachment of Obama, part of a broader GOP effort that includes the House lawsuit, led by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, against the president for unilateral changes in the health care law. The House will be voting on the lawsuit this week.
A mention by Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia of impeachment elicited scattered boos from Republican committee members.
“Political theater,” said Democratic Rep. Bill Enyart of Illinois, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and said it was “an article of faith among our military that we leave no service member behind.”
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the committee, offered an alternative to express the sense of the House that the administration should have notified Congress. The panel rejected that version on a 40-19 vote.