Congress began taking steps on Tuesday to rein in and investigate President Obama after an outcry over his release of five senior Taliban detainees in exchange for a U.S. soldier captured five years ago.
The House Appropriations Committee, in a bipartisan 33-13 vote, passed language banning the Pentagon from funding detainee transfers from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The president had come under criticism from members of both parties over the swap for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, which two polls on Tuesday showed is unpopular with voters.
Lawmakers accused Obama of breaking the law by not providing Congress with 30 days’ notice of a transfer out of Guantánamo, and said he jeopardized U.S. security by letting the Taliban prisoners go.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), in his first public comments on the swap, warned that the U.S. would “pay” for Obama’s decision.
“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,” Boehner said at a press conference. “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. And we’re going to pay for this. 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.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will testify Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee on the swap. House Republicans were angry on Monday night after they complained that a classified briefing on the administration’s decision yielded little new information.
While Democrats had also raised concerns about the exchange, there were signs on Tuesday that senior leaders were beginning to circle the wagons in support of Obama.
After criticizing the administration for not informing Congress ahead of time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday it was time to move on.
“I think we need to put an end to all of this now. I think enough is enough. I think the Senate has had a hearing and the House has had a hearing,” she said. “Everybody has heard what they need to hear.”
The White House has noted that the president issued a signing statement disputing the constitutionality of a provision in appropriations legislation requiring him to give Congress a month’s notice of detainee transfers. That position earned support from the second-ranking House Democrat, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).
“I’m an institutionalist, but on this issue, I think the administration is correct in terms of its authority,” Hoyer told reporters. “And I think the 30-day notice requirement that was in the law was inconsistent with the Constitution.”
Still, Hoyer said it would have been “wise policy” for the White House to have informed congressional leaders about the trade.
On Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he would introduce legislation to freeze all prisoner swaps, but beyond issuing blistering statements, it was unclear what action Congress was prepared to take. A House leadership aide noted that members already considered it the law for Obama to inform Congress ahead of time, and it was likely he would dispute further bills that he viewed as infringing on his authority as commander in chief.
The House in 2011 did pass a resolution condemning the president for neglecting to seek congressional approval for the U.S. military intervention in Libya.
Polls released in recent days showed public disapproval of the Bergdahl exchange, at a time when Obama’s broader foreign policy is under fire.
Yet in recent days Republicans have focused less on questions about Bergdahl’s military record and disappearance and more on the five Taliban leaders who were released.
While they questioned the decision to let those prisoners go, some Republicans acknowledged that with the war in Afghanistan winding down, the U.S. would have to determine what to do with the detainees who remain in Guantánamo more than five years after Obama sought to close the prison there.
“The question really is, should these five have been released at this time?” Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) said. “But there’s no question that if we’re going to be ending the war in Afghanistan, then some of these people are going to be released, and I think we all need to understand that.”
Martin Matishak, Alexander Bolton and Mike Lillis contributed.