Washington, 28 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The ratification debate on NATO expansion has finally got under way in the U.S. Senate but the expected results may not be as clearcut as initially anticipated.
On the first full day of the debate Monday, of more than a dozen speakers, about half expressed concerns about NATO enlargement and half spoke in favor of taking Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance.
Most of the critics and opponents have long made their positions known and there were no surprises in some of the things they said Monday about antagonizing Russia, diluting the purpose of the NATO defense alliance and going to the unnecessary expense of enlargement when there is no real threat in Europe.
Nevertheless, some Washington observers say the opposition camp has gained ground since the fitful start of the Senate NATO debate last month even though it is not expected to prevail.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi) as well as Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-South Dakota) both told reporters Monday they support expansion because "it is the right thing to do."
And they said they expect to get much more than the required two thirds majority of the 100-member Senate to vote in favor of the expansion protocols to the NATO treaty.
Daschle said "there is a strong bipartisan coalition that wants to see this treaty pass this week and I believe it will."
But there is less certainty about what will happen to an amendment sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-Virginia) that would mandate a three-year pause before any other country could be considered for NATO membership.
President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others have strongly opposed the measure saying it will send the wrong message and establish a new dividing line in Europe, leaving many aspiring NATO countries, including the Baltic states, in the cold.
Last month, State Department officials, as well as leading U.S. senators queried by RFE/RL predicted confidently that the amendment will fail. But now they say there will be a legislative battle over it.
Daschle was optimistic, saying he believes the amendment can be defeated.
A U.S. official, who spoke with RFE/RL on condition he not be named, said "the Warner amendment could be close because it concerns procedure, not substance."
The official said senators, who basically endorse the idea of NATO enlargement but feel dissatisfied with some aspect of it, could safely vote for the amendment, knowing it will not affect the overall outcome or be seen as an ideological statement. "It's a process, not a substance amendment and that's what makes it attractive to some doubters," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, who made a last-minute pitch Monday for the administration's position, said Clinton feels strongly that the door must be left open for other countries to join NATO after the accession of the three Central Europeans.
Cohen called the Warner amendment "unnecessary and counterproductive...and unwise to lock a decision into a three-year freeze," because it might invite the legislatures of other countries to attach similar amendments to the expansion protocols.
He dismissed fears about Russia's reaction to NATO enlargement, saying Moscow understands exactly what it means for future stability. "I don't see this in any way as sparking the kind of regression that is voiced by some," he said, adding "and I don't see the kind of apocalyptic suggestions being raised by some as ever materializing."
Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-New York), a co-sponsor of Warner's amendment, recently gave a speech titled "Could NATO Expansion Lead to Nuclear War?"
Moynihan and Warner both spoke on the Senate floor Monday, repeating familiar arguments about an adverse reaction in Russia, and the weakening impact of enlargement on NATO structures, among other things.
Observers of the U.S. Senate say a hard core of some 20 opponents to expansion has not significantly increased in number and will not muster the 34 votes needed to block approval of the NATO treaty protocols.
Even critics may not in the end vote nay on expansion. Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) has long opposed NATO enlargement. But in an RFE/RL interview last month, he would not say how he will vote and said he may rethink the issue in the course of the debate.
Ashcroft, who is thinking of running for president in the next U.S. election in the year 2000, used much of his time on the Senate floor Monday to criticize U.S. cutbacks on defense spending unrelated to NATO expansion.
The U.S. official said the NATO expansion debate is also an opportunity for many senators to air general concerns about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and score political points against the administration.
Launching the debate Monday, Lott said it is important that every senator get a chance to speak his mind in the NATO debate. He said he expected it to last three days and the vote to be held late Wednesday or Thursday.
The U.S. Senate will thus fulfill its constitutional role of giving advice and consent to the U.S. President on international treaties, and it will remain for Clinton to sign the ratification.
U.S. officials say that is likely to take place in a White House ceremony within a week of the Senate vote.
The U.S. will then become the fifth or sixth of the 16 NATO member countries to ratify the expansion protocols -- following Denmark, Norway, Canada and Germany. Iceland is expected to complete the process sometime this week also.