WASHINGTON – In an election-year challenge to President Barack Obama, the Republican-led House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a $570 billion defense bill that halts any Guantanamo transfers for a year amid the furor over the American-for-Taliban swap and pulls back on government spying.
The vote was 340-73 for the measure that provides money for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, personnel, ships and aircraft. An unusual coalition of libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats pushed through new limits on National Security Agency surveillance as the year-old revelations of bulk collection of millions of Americans' phone records still roil the debate of security versus privacy.
Weeks after the prisoner exchange, Republicans railed against Obama's decision to trade five Taliban leaders who had been held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for more than a decade for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a captive for five years in Afghanistan. The Taliban were transferred to Qatar, where they must remain for a year.
Republicans said Obama broke the law by failing to notify Congress at least 30 days before the swap and increased the terrorism risk to the United States with the exchange.
Obama has defended the deal to spare Bergdahl, with officials saying the government needed to move expeditiously due to his failing health. The administration has tried to reduce the population at Guantanamo, where 149 are being held.
The House added a provision to the bill that would bar funds for transfers, imposing a one-year moratorium on moving Guantanamo detainees to a foreign country. It also voted to bar funds for transferring Guantanamo detainees to Yemen.
"President Obama's recent exchange of five high-level terrorists without notifying Congress illustrates his blatant disregard for its role as a co-equal branch of government," Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who called the five "cold-blooded terrorists," said in a statement.
Cotton, an Army veteran who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, sponsored the amendment. The first-term lawmaker is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in the midterm elections.
The bill already bars 85 percent of the funds in the account for overseas conflicts until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel reassures lawmakers that congressional notification on Guantanamo transfers will be respected.
Earlier this year, the House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act that would codify a proposal made in January by Obama, who said he wanted to end the National Security Agency's practice of collecting and storing the "to and from" records of nearly every American land line telephone call under a program that searched the data for connections to terrorist plots abroad.
Several Republicans and Democrats said the legislation fell short in curbing NSA surveillance. They joined forces and scored a decisive victory late Thursday in their effort to impose new limits on the agency over the objections of leaders of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
The bill would prohibit the agency from searching for the communications of specific American accounts within the vast trove of Internet data it has collected while targeting foreigners. Critics say that tactic amounts to improper "back-door" searches because it is conducted without warrants.
Government officials argue that since the information was acquired legally, there should be no reason they can't use it for intelligence purposes or even in criminal investigations.
The NSA obtains the Internet data both through court orders on tech companies such as Google and Facebook and also by secretly tapping fiber optic cables abroad. Though the collection targets foreigners, U.S. officials acknowledge it sweeps in the communications of significant numbers of Americans.
The bill also would bar the NSA from mandating or requesting that tech companies build secret flaws – so-called trap doors – in hardware, software or devices that would facilitate government surveillance.
"The American people are sick of being spied on," said Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.
Despite the clamor to cut the deficit and Pentagon pleas for cost-saving reductions, lawmakers voted to spare military bases, the A-10 Warthog close air support plane and an aircraft carrier.
That drew a warning from Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, who backed the bill but warned of a price to pay very soon.
"We have to stop pretending that national security ... can somehow be magically created without having a fiscally sustainable policy," the Maryland lawmaker said.
The White House has objected to the legislation, which must be reconciled with a still-to-be written version from the Democratic-led Senate.
The bill would provide $490 billion for core defense spending and $79 billion for overseas operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts. The $79 billion is a placeholder as Congress awaits a more detailed proposal from the administration.
Wary of U.S. re-engagement in Iraq three years after combat troops left, two Democrats – Reps. John Garamendi of California and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii – won voice vote approval for an amendment requiring the president to seek congressional approval for sustained military action in Iraq.
"This miscalculation is not worth repeating," Hanabusa said of Iraq during the debate.