House Republicans condemned President Obama for failing to notify Congress in advance of the May swap of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban members.
But with the House expected to vote this week to allow a lawsuit against the president, multiple Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee said Tuesday that the resolution was nothing more than “political theater.”
The resolution, introduced by Republican Rep. Scott Rigell of Virginia, says Obama failed to follow the law by not notifying Congress 30 days ahead of the swap earlier this year, as required under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014.
Bergdahl went missing in June 2009 from his base in Afghanistan. He was held by the Taliban and was freed in May in exchange for the release of five Taliban members who were being detained at Guantanamo Bay. The prisoners, who were transferred to Qatar, are not allowed to leave the Middle Eastern country for a year.
“Congress was not able to consider the risk to the American people or our troops in harms way,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon said regarding the swap.
Rigell and other lawmakers said they have concerns about the national security implications of the Bergdahl exchange because it suggests the United States will negotiate with terrorists, but added they are also “relieved” that Bergdahl is back in the United States.
Rigell said he believes Obama’s decision to not notify Congress before the swap was “unnecessary” and “harmed our relationship with the administration.”
Administration officials told lawmakers earlier this year that after consulting with the Justice Department, they concluded they did not have to notify Congress 30 days in advance because of a legal loophole.
Officials also suggested that notifying Congress would have put the swap, and Bergdahl’s life, at unnecessary risk.
Asked if the administration would follow the 30-day requirement in the future, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration would follow the requirement “unless there is an extraordinary set of circumstances.”
Committee Democrats largely agreed that the administration should have given prior notification, but they felt the Republican-backed legislation went too far. Democratic Reps. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii were the only Democrats to support Rigell’s proposal.
Committee ranking member Adam Smith of Washington state offered an amendment to the resolution, which was ultimately rejected. He and other Democrats on the panel suggested that Rigell’s resolution could appear partisan, because it contends the administration knowingly violated the law.
“[Prisoner swaps] are very, very difficult decisions to make,” Smith said. “I do not think it is appropriate for this Congress to condemn the president for making that decision.”
Smith’s amendment instead would have noted that the administration and lawmakers had a disagreement on how to interpret the law.
And Tuesday’s hearing comes at a potentially precarious time for lawmakers, with the House expected to authorize a lawsuit against Obama this week.
“This is happening in the context of a vote tomorrow to authorize a lawsuit against the president of the United States,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney, calling the larger argument a “600-pound gorilla.”