The U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 372-46 Wednesday, endorsed a second round of NATO expansion, and approved military aid for seven Eastern European countries that hope to join the alliance. NATO is to decide at a summit in Prague next year whether to admit new members.
The House voted to give a total of $55 million in military aid to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Those nations, along with Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, are seeking membership in NATO.
Republican Congressman Porter Goss of Florida is chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
"The modest cost of this assistance is a very small price to pay for the potential gaining of long-term allies in a formalized way in this critical region of the world," he said.
The legislation endorses NATO expansion in general but not any specific candidates. The bill reflects the position of the Bush administration, and previous Clinton administration.
But some lawmakers question whether NATO is still needed. They argue that the alliance was created to deter a threat that no longer exists: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
"The purpose NATO was created for has passed away, and the Europeans can afford to pay for their own defense," said republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California.
Congressman Rohrabacher also said NATO expansion would anger Russia at a time when Washington is engaging Moscow in its war on terrorism.
It is an argument echoed by Congressman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California.
"If at this critical time the U.S. is seeking cooperation from Russia, it is counterproductive, in my opinion, to take actions that Russia would perceive to be aggressive," he said. "The legislation before us we are talking about admitting to NATO countries that would bring NATO right next to the border with Russia."
But Congressman Waxman's fellow California Democrat, Tom Lantos, argued otherwise.
"I think it is important to underscore in dealing with the expansion of NATO that this is in no sense directed at Russia," congressman Lantos said.
Supporters of the legislation prevailed - sending the bill to the Senate for action.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungry joined NATO in 1999 - the first group of former Warsaw Pact nations to do so.