The U.S. Senate by a 85-6 vote Friday endorsed a second round of NATO expansion. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is expected to decide at a Prague summit in November which countries to admit in another round of enlargement.
The Senate also voted to give a total of $55 million in security assistance 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.
The legislation, which was approved by the House in November, endorses NATO expansion in general but not any specific candidate.
"This bill will help NATO extend the zone of stability eastward and southward on the continent so that sometime in the next decade we will be able to say for the first time I think in all of modern history that we have a Europe whole and free," said Delaware Democrat Joe Biden, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
But some senators expressed concerns about NATO expansion. Virginia Senator John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, voted against the measure because he believes prospective candidates are not sufficiently prepared to join the alliance. "We have got to be a watchdog of NATO as we begin to invite more and more countries in under this umbrella, and it could well weaken the alliance," the senator said.
Senator Biden responded that the military aid included in the bill would help candidate countries meet the alliance's stringent membership requirements.
Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, voted for the bill, but questioned the cost to the United States of NATO expansion, and whether the alliance is needed at all. "This is a defensive alliance to protect the democracies of Western Europe from the communist threat of the East. That threat has evaporated," she said.
The legislatures of all 19 current NATO members must ratify inclusion of the countries invited.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungry joined NATO in 1999 in the first round of enlargement.