Washington, July 26 (RFE/RL) -- This week's approval of legislation encouraging the rapid expansion of NATO into central and eastern Europe is a compromise between Democrats at the White House and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress over what the United States can do to enlarge the 16-nation alliance, a senior Congressional Democrat says.
"There is some common ground between the administration and the sponsors of this bill," says Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives' International Affairs Committee.
The House passed the bill, called the "NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act," by a 353 to 65 vote on Tuesday.
The measure calls upon the NATO alliance to accept the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as full members as soon as it is possible. The resolution says these nations want to join NATO as soon as they may and that they have made the most progress in meeting NATO standards. The bill also authorized $60 million in U.S. assistance to help the three countries enter the alliance.
The chief sponsor of the resolution is Congressman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York). He is chair of the International Relations Committee and was one of the early advocates of NATO expansion when the idea began receiving serious discussion in 1992.
President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, resisted the idea of setting either a timetable or making a list of nations to be the first candidates for membership. A version of a NATO enlargement bill considered by the House in 1995 was vigorously opposed by Clinton and the U.S. State Department.
Congressman Hamilton said the bill passed Tuesday "is a distinct improvement," over the 1995 proposal "as well as other efforts to dictate the nature and the timetable of NATO enlargement."
Hamilton and 154 other House Democrats joined 198 House Republicans in voting for Gilman's bill. Even Clinton has softened his opposition.
In a letter to Gilman that was read during the debate on the bill, Clinton said, "I welcome your efforts to build bipartisan Congressional support both for the continuing engagement of the United States in Europe and for this Administration's commitment to bringing new members into the Alliance."
Clinton also told Gilman that he agreed that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland "are indeed making substantial progress," and that they "will be strong candidates for early NATO membership." However, Clinton also said that he still has some objections to the measure.
"At this stage, however, writing into law a narrow list of countries eligible for special assistance could reduce our ability to work with other emerging democracies that are also making significant progress but may not be immediately eligible for assistance under the NATO Participation Act."
As a practical matter, the importance of the House bill may be more symbolic.
"It reflects an attitude in this country to move ahead on enlargement," says Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In an interview with RFE/RL, he said the measure is an indication of support by the Congress for the new democracies in central and eastern Europe. The endorsement by the Congress for membership by Prague, Budapest and Warsaw is not at all controversial, he said.
While Congress did authorize $60 million in aid, it did not actually set aside or appropriate funds for this purpose, Sonnenfeldt noted. This is an important distinction. Authorization only means that approval has been given to spend money for a certain purpose. In order to spend that money, however, Congress must also vote for an appropriation. That would require another piece of enabling legislation.
Election-year domestic politics may be connected to the NATO enlargement issue, Sonnenfeldt said. A measure similar to Gilman's is pending before the U.S. Senate. The Senate measure was introduced earlier this year by Bob Dole of Kansas. He was the Majority Leader at the time but has since retired from the Senate to concentrate on his presidential campaign.
Dole is certain to win the Republican Party nomination to run against Clinton. In a recent speech, Dole said NATO should include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland as new members before the end of 1998.
"Politicians seem to think it benefits them to show support for these countries," Sonnenfeldt said.
A significant number of American voters have ancestral roots in Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Some politicians are convinced that support for eastern European countries will translate into votes in U.S. elections, said Sonnenfeldt.