House votes to condemn administration over Taliban prisoner swap

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The House passed a resolution on Tuesday condemning the Obama administration for not giving Congress advance notice of the exchange of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban prisoners. 

The measure passed largely along party lines in a 249-163 vote, but 22 Democrats broke ranks to rebuke the president, with just two months to go before the midterm elections.

The executive branch is required by the 2014 Defense Appropriations Act to notify Congress at least 30 days before transferring prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. A Government Accountability Office report found last month that the administration violated the law by not adhering to the requirement.

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President Obama defended not notifying Congress in May by arguing that potential leaks to the media could have jeopardized the deal with the Taliban to free the last American prisoner of war in Afghanistan.  

Under the terms of the deal, the five former Guantánamo Bay prisoners must stay in Qatar for at least a year.

The so-called “Taliban Five” were former high-ranking members of the Taliban regime. They include Mohammad Nabi Omari, the Taliban's former chief of communications, Mohammad Fazi, who served as chief of staff of the Taliban Army, and Abdul Haq Wasiq, the former deputy chief of the Taliban's intelligence agency.

Republicans said that releasing high-ranking former members of the Taliban back to their home countries risked recidivism and threatened national security.

“In transferring the Taliban Five without lawfully notifying Congress, the administration deprived Congress of the opportunity to consider the national security risks that such a transfer could pose or the repercussions of negotiating with terrorists,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). 

The vote comes as the Army is working to complete its investigation of Bergdahl for leaving his post in Afghanistan, which led to his imprisonment by the Taliban.

The 22 Democrats who voted with Republicans, most of whom are in tough reelection races, were Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Ami Bera (Calif.), Bruce Braley (Iowa), Julia Brownley (Calif.), Cheri Bustos (Ill.), Jim Costa (Calif.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Pete Gallego (Texas), Joe Garcia (Fla.), Daniel Lipinski (Ill.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Mike Michaud (Maine), Patrick Murphy (Fla.), Beto O’Rourke (Texas), Gary Peters (Mich.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.), Raul Ruiz (Calif.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Tim Walz (Minn.).

Braley is running for Senate in one of the year's most competitive races, while Michaud is running for governor of Maine.

Barrow, a top GOP target, argued the exchange with the Taliban set a bad precedent.

“Negotiating with terrorists will only weaken this nation in the future and encourage other terrorists to kidnap Americans in an attempt to extort future prisoner exchanges,” Barrow said.

The resolution further states that the exchange hurt the administration's relationships with lawmakers. The text says that “these actions have burdened unnecessarily the trust and confidence in the commitment and ability of the Obama administration to constructively engage and work with Congress.”

Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), the resolution's sponsor, said it would affirm the checks and balances outlined in the Constitution.

“If we don't hold the administration accountable for this, who will? That's what we do and making sure that the balance of powers is adhered to,” Rigell said.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he agreed that the Obama administration should have apprised Congress of the negotiations. But he argued that Tuesday's vote would only further strain the White House's relations with Congress.

“Unfortunately, I think this piece of legislation is unnecessary and I think it further poisons the well between the Congress and the president,” Smith said. 

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said the most important aspect of the Bergdahl exchange was ensuring the last American prisoner of war returned to the U.S.

“It's hard for me to understand why we are debating this partisan resolution that would condemn the president and our government for having saved the life of an American soldier,” Becerra said.  

—This story was updated at 5:42 p.m.

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