The House voted Tuesday to condemn the Obama administration for swapping five Taliban soldiers for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl without giving Congress enough notice, and approved the measure with the help of more than a dozen Democrats.
Members passed the resolution against the Obama administration in a 249-163 vote that saw 22 Democrats vote for it, along with every Republican.
The resolution is an expression of opposition and does not have the force of law. But the vote shows that even some Democrats believe Obama went too far by giving Congress just a few hours' notice about the prisoner swap, when the law required 30 days' notice.
The administration agreed in May to release five dangerous Taliban prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in exchange for Bergdahl. Most said they were glad to see Bergdahl's return, but said the administration didn't follow a law passed by Congress requiring advance notice.
"The administration took this action without notifying Congress. This is an obvious violation of the law. There can be no confusion on this point," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said.
"If Congress does not speak strongly now to condemn such blatant disregard for the law, any future administration may come to believe that obedience to statute is not a requirement for the executive branch," he said. "This is intolerable."
The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), argued that while Obama violated the law as passed by Congress, he didn't violate the higher law found in Article II of the Constitution.
"The administration's position is that they acted in accordance with their Article II commander in chief authority, in the interest of national security in bringing one of our soldiers home," Smith said. "And it is their position that Article II of the Constitution, which is a law, supersedes the piece of legislation that was referenced about 30 days' notice… and therefore their actions were legal."
Smith argued that every other president has made similar violations of smaller laws as they carried out their duties under Article II, and said the dispute highlights a tension between the Congress and the White House that has existed for hundreds of years.
As an example, he said President George W. Bush "repeatedly took actions" that violated law as passed by Congress, including the authorization of warrantless wiretapping and warrantless detention.
But Republicans disagreed — McKeon said a claim of non-violation of the law is not the same as a finding of non-violation by an impartial judge.
"Prisoners are full of people that say they don't think they broke the law. But some judge thinks they did. And in this instance, until you take the matter to the court, it is the law, and even though he's the president of the United States, he did break the law."
Smith and other Democrats argued that the resolution is mostly a partisan exercise, since the GOP didn't pursue similar legislation when Bush was in office. But several Republicans insisted that the matter is not partisan, and noted that the Government Accountability Office released a non-partisan report saying Obama clearly violated the law.