For now, Bergdahl and Benghazi push Obamacare into the background

Republicans were poised to make Obamacare the big issue of the 2014 midterms. It still could be. But the Benghazi probe and Bowe Bergdahl prison swap are now likely to be major issues, too.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
From left, Republican Sens. John Barrasso of Wyoming, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, disparage the Obama administration’s decision to swap prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl for high-level Taliban militants detained at Guantánamo Bay.

Republicans are now adding two “Bs” – Bergdahl and Benghazi – to the big “O” of Obamacare in their attacks against Democrats ahead of this year’s elections.

Midterm elections traditionally reflect voters' view of the president, and Republicans see an opportunity to turn that to their advantage.

"Bergdahl fits in with the ongoing narrative being used by the Republicans that Obama is not to be trusted to stay within the lane markers of the Constitution and, furthermore, that he is an incompetent administrator," says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J.

The controversy surrounding the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on Saturday has come amid revived scrutiny of the Benghazi affair through a special House committee. Together, they potentially “give two more reasons to vote” for Republicans in the fall, because they fall “under a bigger umbrella” of confidence and trust in the president and his party, adds Jennifer Duffy, of the independent Cook Political Report.

Republicans certainly aren’t abandoning the Affordable Care Act as an election issue. It’s playing out in speeches and campaign ads across the country. It grabbed attention on the Senate floor again Wednesday as senators debated the confirmation of Sylvia Mathews Burwell to be the new secretary of Health and Human Services.

But for the moment, health care is being eclipsed by the swap of Sergeant Bergdahl for five Taliban who had been detained at Guantánamo Bay. Politically, it shares many of the characteristics of the probe into Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2012.

Questions surround Bergdahl’s release – from the number of Taliban traded to Bergdahl’s health to the circumstances of his 2009 capture in Afghanistan. They will come up Wednesday afternoon when senior administration officials meet on Capitol Hill in a rare closed door hearing with the full Senate. On Tuesday, the Democrat-led Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a private hearing. The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee also plans to hold hearings.

On the Benghazi front, a new special House committee was formed last month to further investigate that case – this after 13 hearings of the House oversight committee. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the new special committee, has said hearings could continue through 2016 – a presidential election year – if the White House drags its feet.

Republicans, and some Democrats, say the White House broke the law by not giving 30 days’ notice that it was releasing prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. The provision was part of the Defense Authorization Act of 2014, but the president had added a “signing statement” that he would not follow that provision because he viewed it as unconstitutional, a violation of his power as commander in chief.

In April, Republicans were similarly angry when they learned, through an outside group’s Freedom of Information Act finding, that the White House had not included e-mails about Benghazi in their subpoena of documents. That’s what triggered the creation of the new special House investigative committee.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is demanding that the White House declassify information on the five released Taliban who are now in Qatar, which negotiated the swap. Americans have a right to know the danger they pose, he says.

And just as complaints arose about then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s characterization of the Benghazi attacks on Sunday talk shows in 2012, critics are questioning her description of Bergdahl as "an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield," who "served with honor and distinction." Troops who served with Bergdahl maintain he was a deserter who walked away from his post.

Last of all, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was at the center of the Benghazi controversy. Now it turns out she wrote a letter to the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees on Jan. 13, 2012, promising that “any transfer from Guantanamo will be undertaken after consultation with Congress and pursuant to all legal requirements for transfers.” It was a promise that President Obama did not keep.

On Wednesday morning, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada accused Republicans of politicizing the Bergdahl case.

“Opponents of President Obama have seized upon the release of an American prisoner of war – that’s what he was – using a moment of celebration for our nation as a chance to play political games,” Senator Reid said. “They’re worried his release could be seen as a victory for President Obama.”

Far more likely is that Democrats are worried that Bergdahl, along with Benghazi and Obamacare, will be used by Republicans for a victory in November. Tellingly, Democrats, too, have questions about the Berdgahl case.

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