Washington, 16 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Although the U.S. Senate is expected to recommend ratification of NATO expansion by a sizable majority, many senators say they are not sure yet how they will vote.
The debate in the full Senate was originally expected Monday but has slipped further down the Senate calendar because of other legislative business.
Congressional aides now predict Wednesday as the earliest time the floor debate on NATO expansion might begin.
Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) said in an RFE/RL interview Friday that "there are a lot of individuals who are still of an open mind and who are still willing to listen to argument and to consider the facts here."
Ashcroft himself was one of two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vote against the NATO expansion resolution earlier this month. But 16 other Committee members voted to recommend the resolution for the full Senate's approval.
He told our correspondent he voted against NATO enlargement because of deep reservations about the post-Cold-War mission of an expanded NATO.
Ashcroft said he is concerned about ideas favored by the administration that NATO could be a peacekeeping force outside Europe in the Middle East or Africa, acting not only in response to a threat to its members but also to protect undefined "interests."
Explaining his position in a statement after the committee vote, he said that "a broad mission statement threatens the future of the alliance," and that "without a clear, post-Cold War mission, NATO could become nothing more than a mini United Nations with a standing army for ill-defined peacekeeping operations."
In the RFE/RL interview, Ashcroft said "these considerations have not been adequately explored," adding "I don't believe these questions about the future of NATO have been adequately answered."
But Ashcroft stressed this does not mean he will cast a "nay" vote again when the full Senate votes on a resolution to ratify the accession protocols that will allow Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to join NATO.
Ashcroft said he is not sure yet how he will vote and could change his mind during the debate. "I will make a final decision on this when I vote. These are my reservations," he said.
Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) shares some of Ashcroft's concerns and wants to attach an amendment to the ratification document, mandating a three-year pause before NATO could continue expanding.
Warner has pressed for more hearings on the consequences of expansion and the Senate Armed Services Committee has unexpectedly scheduled another inquiry into NATO expansion to be held next Thursday, independently of the floor debate.
Senators in favor of NATO enlargement point out that over the past 12 months, four senate committees have held more than a dozen hearings to examine different aspects of the issue and hear differing views.
Senator William Roth (R-Delaware), a leading supporter of expansion, says expansion opponents will focus on the Warner amendment as a major issue in the debate.
He said he expects a vigorous and lengthy debate on the Senate floor. But in the end, he anticipates a resounding victory for those in favor of ratification.
He said in an RFE/RL interview last week he is sure the accession protocols will be approved. Roth expressed confidence that not only would the NATO expansion resolution be approved for ratification but would pass free of any restrictive amendments.
He and other legislators say the proposed ratification resolution is well drafted and incorporates already provisions to allay concerns about Russia's influence on the alliance, the new NATO mission and the costs of enlargement.
Roth is chairman of the 28-member so-called Senate NATO Observer Group. It was formed a year ago to advise the Senate leadership on expansion issues and may continue monitoring NATO developments after the ratification vote.
Roth said no decisions have been made yet about the group's future but he hopes it will continue its work.
A 67-majority of the 100-member Senate is required to approve the NATO resolution which must then be signed by President Bill Clinton and deposited with NATO's founding treaty of April 4, 1949 in the U.S. National Archives.