By Mike Lillis - 06/10/14 01:08 PM EDT
President Obama did not break the law in the prisoner swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) said Tuesday.
Hoyer, the Democratic whip, said Obama had the authority under the Constitution to trade Taliban prisoners for Bergdahl without notifying Congress.
Still, Hoyer said it would have been "wise policy" for the White House to have informed congressional leaders about the controversial trade, which freed five Taliban commanders who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"My advice to the president would have been: 'Notify them. Pick up the phone and say this is what's happening,'" Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "That would have been wise policy."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have condemned Obama's decision to negotiate the prisoner swap through leaders in Qatar without warning Congress of the action. The critics contend the president violated a long-held policy of not negotiating with terrorist groups, as well as a law requiring the administration to provide congressional leaders with 30 days notice of such a deal.
Critics are also up in arms over news that as many as 90 administration officials may have known of the transaction before anyone in Congress was notified.
The administration on Monday briefed House members on the swap, but many lawmakers left the meeting frustrated.
“We’re glad that Bergdahl is back, but the biggest issue here is the violation of the policy that the United States has had for many, many years that we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday. “The fact is that we have violated that policy and, as a result, we have made Americans less safe here and all around the world.
"We’re going to pay for this," Boehner added. "There is not any doubt in my mind that there are going to be costs of ... lost lives associated with what came out of this.”
Hoyer pushed back against the criticism that the swap played too much in the Taliban's favor, and he suggested the Guantanamo prisoners could have been released at the end of the Afghanistan War with nothing in return.
"Absent a finding that these detainees committed a war crime — or a crime, period — at the end of the conflict in Afghanistan, which is scheduled for the end of this year, they would have to be released. So that, in fact, these individuals perhaps [were] released six months early and in return we get the only prisoner held in Afghanistan."
Still, Hoyer said he agrees with critics' argument that Congress should have been informed. He said the White House should have warned the top leaders in both chambers — including Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — as well as the bipartisan leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees.
"[It's] not a surprising reaction from the Congress of the United States that sees a very controversial action being taken without any notification from the administration to the Congress that it was going to occur," Hoyer said. "I think it would have been wise to do that."
Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), head of the House Democratic Caucus, also defended the prisoner swap Tuesday, arguing that it sends a strong signal that the U.S. government "will go to all ends to make sure we get our troops back home safely."
Becerra acknowledged that he's "not comfortable" with many aspects of the Afghanistan conflict, including the recent release of the five Taliban detainees. But war, he quickly added, "should never make you comfortable."