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NATO: U.S. Legislators To Debate NATO Expansion Bill

Washington, 11 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to begin debate today (Wednesday) on legislation designed to help Romania and the three Baltic states join NATO.

The bill, called the European Security Act of 1997, is sponsored by chairman of the House International Relations Committee Benjamin Gilman (R-New York) and supported by many other influential congressmen.

They expect to get a majority vote for the bill and pass it without much trouble before the end of this week, even if the debate begins Thursday instead of today. A congressional aide said that could happen if the timetable slips on other items on the agenda.

Analysts say the weight of the proposed European Security Act, measured in legislative force, is feathery light. It cannot set foreign policy since under the U.S. constitution that is the prerogative of the president in the White House.

As a U.S. official pointed out, the constitution is clear on the division of powers and "the executive branch does not like to be told by the legislative branch what it must do in an area that is constitutionally the president's responsibility."

Experts suggest the bill's main impact will be to focus public attention on Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

They say these countries are not as well known in America as Poland or Hungary and the House action may raise their profile in the U.S.

Others say, the House vote could be an early test of general congressional support for NATO expansion.

Not many legislators are known to disagree with the broad outlines of the European Security Act that the door should remain open for NATO expansion and that Russia should not be allowed to delay or dilute this process, nor in any way to undermine the effectiveness of the NATO defense alliance.

Many of the provisions are already official U.S. policy. The White House has said about the proposed legislation that it welcomes congressional support for NATO enlargement and agrees that the door to NATO membership must remain open after a first group of countries is invited to join NATO at a summit in Madrid next month.

However, the bill goes much further, stating explicitly that Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania should become eligible for special assistance to prepare them for NATO membership six months after the bill is enacted into law.

But it adds a clause, allowing president Bill Clinton to certify that these countries fail to meet NATO criteria and thus are not eligible.

A spokeswoman for the Joint Baltic American National Committee in Washington, Aija Straumanis, says this puts pressure on Clinton to report to Congress on the status of NATO membership applications and will keep the focus on the Baltic states.

Regarding the special funds proposed in the bill, according to one official, it is not as generous as it sounds. He points out that Romania and the Baltics already receive a share of $ 100 million allocated by Congress under 1994 legislation to former Warsaw Pact countries. The money is for joint military exercises and other costs of promoting closer military ties with NATO.

The official, who did not wish to be named, said the European Security Act refers to these funds and does not stipulate or suggest that they would be increased.

Another part of the proposed legislation urges NATO membership for Romania and the Baltics "at the earliest possible date" upon fulfilment of criteria for joining NATO.

The provision is expressed as "a sense of the congress," which means that it is non-binding and does not have the force of law but can indicate the strength of feeling on an issue in the legislative body.

After the proposed European Security Act is approved by the House of Representatives it will go through a legislative process in the U.S. Senate and then be presented to both chambers of the U.S. Congress for a floor vote. President Bill Clinton will have the final word. It will be his decision whether to slash the legislation put before him with a veto or sign it into law.