Washington, 20 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- President Bill Clinton plans to attend a White House ceremony today to mark the importance of the U.S. Senate's current debate on whether to ratify NATO expansion.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Thursday that Clinton wants to express his sense of the historic opportunity that exists to expand the frontiers of democracy and freedom in Europe by taking three new allies -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- into NATO.
McCurry said Clinton has pursued this goal patiently for four years. It is now very close to a successful conclusion, he said, and the President wants to address the significance of the occasion before he leaves at the weekend on a trip to Africa.
A congressional aide told our correspondent Thursday that a vote on the senate resolution on ratification is not expected before the middle of next week.
The debate got off to a slow start late Tuesday and continued intermittently Wednesday and Thursday in between other legislative business.
Several legislators criticized the handling of the debate, saying the decision on NATO expansion is the most important foreign policy issue in decades and is being treated as an afterthought, filling in time between consideration of a bill on education.
The comments prompted Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), who sets the Senate agenda, to take the floor in defense, saying "the dual track of the debate is not intended to diminish its importance." He said the ratification debate will become sharper and more focused when senators begin discussing the amendments and conditions of ratification before the vote.
Most of the time Thursday, speakers made opening statements to enter their positions into the record, addressing an almost empty chamber. But there was a heated exchange between Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), a strong supporter of NATO enlargement, and two senators who oppose it -- Republican John Warner of Virginia and Democrat Daniel Moynihan of New York.
Moynihan brought a map on an easel to the podium to show that expanding NATO would cut off Russia's access to the Kaliningrad military port on the Baltic Sea, edged by Poland and Lithuania.
He and Warner support an amendment to the NATO accession protocols that would mandate a three-year pause before consideration of new candidates for NATO membership after Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have been admitted.
They said that NATO expansion will risk the U.S. and NATO armies being dragged into ancient enmities and long-simmering ethnic and religious disputes. "We have no idea what we are getting into," Moynihan said.
Warner argued that if the Baltic nations join NATO, Russia will be encircled and become hostile. As he put it, "the Iron Curtain that faced the West will be replaced by an Iron Ring facing East."
But Biden said "this is an astounding view," adding "there is no ring, and if there is one it is the Ring of Freedom that anyone can join."
At times shouting in indignation and striding around the hall, Biden pointed out that it is the Baltic countries that have historic reasons to worry about Russia, not the other way round.
Kaliningrad used to be part of Lithuania and Russia took away Lithuania's freedom to have access to the port, he said, adding that the question of whether the Baltics can join NATO "is a fight for another day" and not relevant to the current debate.
But Biden said the extent of Ameria's security commitment to defend the new Central European members should be fully understood by the American public.
He said ratification of NATO expansion protocols means the U.S. would pledge its sacred honor to defend the three Central European nations without hesitation or doubt..
Some U.S. senators of East European descent took a special interest in the ratification debate but did not find themselves in agreement.
Senator Paul Wellstone, the son of a Ukrainian immigrant, was the first legislator this week to state flatly that he will vote against ratification.
Warner is setting conditions to a yes vote and has not said what he will do if his amendment is rejected as expected. Other critics have said they may change their mind during the debate and support ratification.
But Wellstone (D-Minnesota), an early opponent of NATO expansion, said yesterday he has made his decision.
He said he weighed all the arguments and was particularly impressed with the views of Czech President Vaclav Havel, whom he called "one of the giants of this century."
But Wellstone said he remains opposed to enlargement because it will redivide Europe and polarize relations with Russia.
He said there is no need for expansion because the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia is no threat. The Russian army was unable even to defeat rebels in Chechnya and is certainly no danger to Central Europeans, Wellstone said.
He said moving NATO territory to Russia's border will encourage anti-western, anti-democratic elements in Russia who may take power when President Boris Yeltsin is gone. Wellstone said an undemocratic Russia would be a greater threat to Europe and that is why he will oppose NATO expansion.
Senator Richard Durbin, a fellow Democrat from Illinois, whose mother came from Lithuania, strongly disagreed, saying: "we should not be driven by a few NATO opponents in Moscow. We should be driven by what is right for the United States and what is right for our allies."
He said the U.S. fought Soviet domination for more than 50 years, never recognizing the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states and continuing to regard them as sovereign and independent. "And now to defer to some Russian thinking...is unacceptable," he said.
Durbin went further than other speakers have so far, saying that "for the Baltic states and other countries in Eastern Europe and near the Baltic Sea, NATO really is their security in the future and that is something the United States should be proud to support."