Washington, 27 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate is set to resume debate today on whether to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the east, with key senators predicting that approval is a virtual certainty but not a done deal.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Republican-Mississippi) -- a supporter of the expansion -- says, "I think it will pass." To make sure there are no last-minute surprises, Lott is urging President Bill Clinton to speak out on the issue before senators vote on the measure.
Lott says the odds are that supporters will get more than 70 votes but he says, "There's not a lot of enthusiasm in here." Voting is expected within a week or two.
Lott's Democratic counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (Democrat-South Dakota) -- another expansion supporter -- also predicts ratification. He says, "I think we are in a very strong position with regard to NATO enlargement."
Senator Bob Smith (Republican-New Hampshire) is a leading opponent of NATO expansion. He has argued against taking Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance. He says moving NATO to the east could ignite nationalism in Russia and seriously damage ties between Washington and Moscow.
The Senate coalition representing the opposition claims to have 18 votes, not enough to kill the measure. Smith acknowledges it would be difficult to get the necessary 34 votes to stop the expansion but says, "We have a shot."
Senator John Warner (Republican-Virginia) says he also has serious misgivings about NATO expansion. He introduced legislation to put a three-year moratorium on expanding NATO beyond the three former Soviet-bloc countries.
The Clinton administration is opposed to the idea. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said in an interview yesterday (on the U.S. television network Fox) that the amendment should be rejected.
Cohen said, "We think that NATO enlargement ought to rest on its own merits, and we believe that we should pass or ratify a decision that's been made by NATO itself."
Cohen says it would be wrong for the United States "to impose any artificial deadlines in terms of how long we should wait before future considerations or any kind of restrictions on the ability of NATO to act in our interest."
Warner -- a respected voice on defense issues -- also says the expansion will blur NATO's mandate. Warner asked, "What will it (an expanded NATO) do? What's its mission?"
Support for NATO expansion is particularly strong among Americans of Central and Eastern European extraction.
Senator Paul Wellstone (Democrat-Minnesota) -- who is an expansion foe -- says he has been receiving cookies by Polish-American groups with "Support NATO Expansion" baked into them.
According to a recent public opinion poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 49 percent of those questioned backed the idea. The poll found the opposition at 18 percent and the rest either did not have an opinion or could not make up their minds.