The Senate has endorsed a second round of NATO expansion, unanimously voting 96-0 to add seven eastern European nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. No House vote is needed.
With the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania on hand for the vote, senators noted their action came on the anniversary of the allied victory in Europe in World War II.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist underscored the support of the seven nations in the U.S.-led war against Iraq.
"It should be instructive to us that all seven of these soon-to-be NATO allies were already on our side in the recent fight to liberate Iraq. Because they had to fight their own liberation, they understand that freedom is not free," senator Frist said.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle offered his own praise.
"This is the beginning of a partnership that will produce greater world stability, greater international involvement in world affairs, and a partnership with countries that will increasingly become valuable partners and allies of the United States," he said.
Senators argued the inclusion of the aspirant nations could help strengthen an alliance that they believe was weakened by divisions among members over the war against Iraq.
Six of the seven were members of the coalition against Iraq, while the other, Slovenia, allowed fly-over rights for humanitarian missions.
Frustrated by the decision of France, Germany and Belgium earlier this year to block a request by Turkey for help in strengthening its defenses ahead of the war, Senators approved an amendment calling on NATO to consider dropping its requirement that decisions be unanimous. The amendment also asks NATO to consider suspending members that no longer adhere to democratic principles.
Senators say the aspirant countries would boost NATO forces to about 200,000 troops and add new bases that could be used for missions worldwide.
The entry of the seven candidates is dependent on ratification by all 19 alliance members. Norway and Canada are the only other members to have approved the second round of NATO enlargement.
NATO invited the seven to join during its summit in the Czech capital, Prague, last November.
The alliance first expanded in 1999, when it admitted the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.