Washington, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- America's four-year effort to expand NATO eastward will culminate in a few days when the U.S. Senate votes on ratification of the protocols that will allow Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to join the alliance.
Leading senators, as well as State Department officials, say they expect an overwhelming majority of the 100-member Senate to vote in favor of the expansion protocols -- but only after a vigorous and lengthy debate.
A congressional aide told our correspondent the debate could go on all day and perhaps longer, before the vote takes place. "There is no doubt we have the required two-thirds majority (67 votes) but the amendments are controversial," he said.
Majority Leader Trent Lott, who sets the floor agenda, said Monday the NATO enlargement vote will be coming up and that he thinks it will pass. But he said "there are those who have real questions about it."
Last week a bipartisan group of some 20 Republicans and Democrats petitioned Lott to delay the vote until June, saying they remain concerned about the extra costs the U.S. will have to pay for expansion, and its impact on Russia.
He rejected the request and said he plans to schedule the vote around mid-month. Our correspondent says the Senate wants to conclude other legislative business first. The NATO ratification debate could begin as early as Friday but next Monday is a more likely date.
Senators will be discussing a document called "Resolution of Ratification on the Accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO."
Skeptics and supporters have attached close to a dozen declarations and conditions to the resolution to clarify and emphasize various aspects.
One provision would mandate annual reports on the expansion costs to the U.S. Senate, and another would require the U.S. President to report to the Senate on discussions in the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.
Declaration seven reaffirms that only Czechs, Poles and Hungarians have been invited to join NATO and that consideration of future members will be subject again to Senate approval.
The attachments reflect continuing and familiar concerns expected to be raised during the Senate debate -- that the U.S. will have to pay too much, that expansion will encourage extremism in Russia, that Russia's influence in the Russia-NATO Council may weaken NATO's operational capability and that taking some countries into NATO and not others may promote instability in Europe.
Several senators opposed to expansion are preparing to table worrying amendments that could complicate the ratification process although they will not stop it.
State Department officials say they are most concerned about Senator John Warner's (R-Virginia) planned amendment to mandate a three-year pause before any other country could be considered for NATO membership.
Cameron Munter of the State Department's NATO Enlargement Office says the proposed amendment goes against U.S. policy. "We are committed to an open-door policy on NATO membership that does not exclude any of the former communist countries provided they meet the necessary criteria," he said.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued forcefully against the idea in congressional testimony earlier this month. She said it would slam the NATO door shut to other nations and create a new dividing line in Europe.
Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-New York) has said he will propose an amendment to delay NATO membership for the three countries until they are admitted to the European Union, a process expected to take at least five years.
Washington observers note that supporters and opponents of NATO expansion have not divided along traditional, ideological party lines and that many come from the Republican and Democrat fringes.
Besides Moynihan, a mainstream liberal Democrat, speakers in the forthcoming debate opposed to expansion are almost evenly split between the socialist left in the Democrat Party concerned about antagonizing Russia, and the Christian conservative right in the Republican Party worried about costs, NATO's effectiveness and its mission.
Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) was one of only two people to vote against expansion in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, which recommended ratification by a 16 to two margin.
Ashcroft says he is not opposed to enlargement but will argue in the debate that the U.S. should have a bigger say in NATO policies to better protect its national interest.
The other was Paul Wellstone (D- Minesotta) who raised concerns about Russia's reaction to expansion.
Most of these issues have been aired exhaustively in numerous congressional hearings, political meetings and civic forums over the past two years.
The Congressional Record, a daily publication of what is said and done in the halls of the U.S. Congress, includes hundreds of pages of transcripts of hearings on NATO expansion.
Senator William Roth (R-Delaware) was one of the earliest supporters of expansion and head of the U.S. Senate NATO Observer Group that advises the Senate leadership on the issue. He points out that a dozen hearings on the subject have been held since July in four different congressional committees.
Roth told reporters recently that in addition the Senate NATO Observer Group convened 17 times with top U.S., NATO and foreign leaders to go over all the controversial aspects of NATO enlargement.
He and Lott note that the U.S. Senate has endorsed NATO enlargement every year since 1994. "We are ready and eager for a full Senate debate," Lott said.
President Bill Clinton was not so enthusiastic for expansion when he first took office. But according to Washington insiders, he had a change of heart after a discussion with Czech president Vaclav Havel and former Polish President Lech Walesa at the opening of the Jewish Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in April 1993.
Clinton reportedly told aides afterward he was greatly impressed by their arguments for enlargement.
At a NATO summit in Brussels in January 1994, Clinton first began to press for expansion and has spearheaded the effort in the alliance ever since.
The White House says Clinton will be making phone calls to skeptical senators later this week, in a last-minute attempt to persuade them to vote in favor of ratification
The public campaign for NATO expansion within the U.S. went into high gear a year ago with the establishment of a special NATO Enlargement office in the State Department to coordinate civic discussions and liaise with the U.S. Congress.
The State Department's Munter says its work is now considered over and the Office is being disbanded this month.
Meanwhile, some 15 U.S. states have passed resolutions endorsing NATO enlargement, along with many civic groups, and political, business and labor organizations.
Polls show a majority of Americans are in favor of NATO enlargement and that is a major reason why no one doubts the people's representatives in the U.S. Senate will vote overwhelmingly to approve the NATO expansion protocols.