WASHINGTON -- A House committee voted Tuesday to condemn President Barack Obama for failing to notify Congress ahead of the May prisoner swap that won the freedom of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl -- a vote that some Democrats hammered as another step toward impeaching the commander in chief.
Bergdahl, who apparently wandered off his base and was captured in Afghanistan five years ago, was freed at the end of May in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners, sparking cries of outrage from many lawmakers in Congress. The reason for their anger was that Congress passed a law requiring the White House to provide 30 days' notice for such exchanges.
In a 34-25 vote, the House Armed Services Committee voted to pass a resolution that "condemns and disapproves" of the president's decision not to give Congress notice of the planned swap as required by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014. Obama has asserted that his administration had been in talks with lawmakers well before the swap took place, and that he was clear that he might be required to take quick action.
All Republicans voted for the resolution, which raises national security concerns about releasing Taliban members from the Guantanamo Bay detention center and warns that the president has eroded trust among members of Congress. Two Democrats also voted for it: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) and Mike McIntyre (N.C.).
But other Democrats lamented that the vote was political -- and, not coincidentally, that it came as House Republicans are preparing to sue the president and some are throwing around the idea of impeachment. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the committee, said he agrees that the administration should have informed Congress about swap, but the president had to do what was necessary to ensure the safe return of Bergdahl.
"On balance, I think the president made the right decision to negotiate and effectuate this particular transfer in order to secure Sgt. Bergdahl's safety and freedom," Smith said. "For the Congress to second-guess that decision, in hindsight, on the basis of risk, while simultaneously expressing relief that the benefit of Sergeant Bergdahl’s safe return was in fact achieved, would be as unfair as it would be wrong."
The committee also voted down an amendment offered by Smith that would have simply declared that the president should have alerted Congress.
"Yes, the president should have given 30 days' notice," he said. "That's the most frustrating part about this. There is no reason why [the administration] couldn't have done that."
However, he noted that many administrations have acted similarly in ignoring laws that they think are trumped by the Constitution. He pointed to warrantless surveillance and other acts of the Bush White House.
"We are being awfully selective about who we choose to condemn, because I don't remember anybody bringing up a resolution in the Republican-controlled House to condemn President Bush for blatantly violating the law then," Smith said.
Republicans argued that regardless of past administrations' actions, it was time to stop any executive from overstepping.
"If we let this abrogation of the presidential oath continue, we will ultimately undermine the Constitution and our way of life in a long-term basis," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), adding that the House must push back at what's "become a lawless presidency."
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a staunch defender of Obama, said the decision to condemn Obama and not previous presidents was just more evidence that many in the GOP are trying to build a case for impeaching Obama.
"What this is, ladies and gentlemen, is another extension of the movement to impeach president Obama," Johnson said. "Who among us does not think this step is a precursor to the drawing of articles of impeachment? Who among us does not believe that?"
Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) insisted that he does not want to impeach the president.
"None of us is interested in impeaching the president," McKeon said. "I've been there, I've done that, and I would not be a part of that," he said, referring to the GOP's impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
The measure now heads to the House floor. A GOP leadership aide said it won't get a vote this week. Committee members said during the hearing that they hoped for a vote in September.