Washington, 23 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate debate on NATO expansion has fallen hostage to internal politicking over domestic legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) announced last week that the Senate must attend to other legislative business first and will not continue the NATO ratification debate today (Monday) as originally scheduled.
Complaining about poor cooperation from Democrat senators on an important education bill, Lott said Friday that it comes first on the senate calendar. He cannot even be sure the Senate will get to the NATO resolution before adjourning for Easter on April 4th, he said.
Lott spoke on the Senate floor minutes after President Bill Clinton made a solemn appeal to the Senate to seize the moment and finish what he said America started four years ago when it launched the effort in NATO to expand eastward and admit Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Clinton spoke at a White House ceremony to mark what National Security Adviser Sandy Berger called "a defining moment for this century and for America's security."
In anticipation of the Senate vote, expected to recommend ratification, the White House invited members of the Washington diplomatic corps, representatives of ethnic community groups, leading U.S. senators and senior military officials.
Clinton's top foreign policy advisers were also there, including Berger and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
She said three nations that have long been America's allies in spirit will soon become U.S. allies in fact and "the U.S. will take a giant step toward a Europe that is finally and forever undivided and at peace ... in which spheres of influence have been banished to the past." Albright said she has been praying for this nearly all her life.
Clinton addressed some of the major concerns that were raised in the senate debate last week. He stressed that NATO's core mission will remain the defense of the territory of its members. "The addition of new members will strengthen and enhance that mission," Clinton said.
But he reserved his strongest emphasis for the question of continued NATO expansion, reiterating that the U.S. wants to keep the doors to NATO open to all of Europe's new democracies, in his words "to ensure that enlargement benefits the security of the entire region, not just the first three members."
Several senators have expressed doubts about this open-ended concept and concerns about Russia's reaction to possible further expansion. A proposed amendment to the ratification resolution would mandate a three-year pause before any consideration of new NATO candidates.
Clinton called such a mandate "unnecessary and unwise," adding that a unilateral freeze on enlargement would reduce America's flexibility and ability to influence its NATO partners.
He said "it would fracture NATO's open-door consensus, undermine further reforms in Europe's democracies, and draw a new, and potentially destabilizing line, at least temporarily, in Europe."
For these reasons, Clinton said he strongly urges the Senate to reject any effort to impose an artificial pause on the process of enlargement.
The White House event, held in the ceremonial white and gold East Room, with military band playing, was in sharp contrast to the low-key, unpredictable nature of the piecemeal debate on NATO in the Senate so far.
With no reserved block of time for the issue, senators have meandered up to the microphone at odd hours over a period of three days to state their position on NATO expansion in between consideration of other legislation.
Lott said the debate would become more focused in the next stage when the senators will discuss and vote on several amendments to the protocols of accession that will allow Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic to join NATO.
None of the amendments that would add restrictive conditions or delay enlargement are expected to pass.
U.S. officials would have preferred the Senate to give the NATO issue greater priority but are not overly concerned that legislative approval of expansion may slip to April since Clinton was due to leave at the weekend on a trip to Africa and would not have been in town for a Senate vote this week.