Washington, 1 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. Senate has given a ringing endorsement to NATO expansion voting to approve changes to the NATO treaty that will allow Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the alliance.
The historic vote with 80 in favor and 19 against came late Thursday night concluding four days of lengthy, often emotional debate.
The final tally was 13 votes more than the two-thirds majority needed for Senate advice and consent to modifications of an international treaty.
Washington officials never doubted that the Senate would vote to recommend ratification of the NATO accession protocols. But there was some initial uncertainty about more than a dozen proposed amendments, declarations and resolutions that would have attached conditions and restrictions to NATO expansion.
Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-New York) wanted to allow new members into NATO only after they had become members of the European Union.
Senator John Ashcroft (R-Missouri) wanted to narrow the definition of NATO's mission and restrict members to defending only NATO territory, excluding such operations as NATO peacekeeping in Bosnia.
Other proposals would have limited the U.S. share of the expansion costs, or linked approval of the NATO treaty changes to unrelated policy measures.
However, the size of the Senate majority in favor of NATO expansion became apparent early Thursday as one after the other, the amendments were defeated by huge margins.
The only exception was Senator John Warner's proposal to mandate a three-year pause before any other country could be considered for NATO membership. Close to a dozen countries, including the Baltic states, have said they want to join NATO.
Warner (R-Virginia) argued that time is needed to assess the impact of the first round of enlargement on NATO operations and see what it will really cost the United States. But most of all, he was troubled about the open-ended nature of NATO expansion, saying: "we do not know what NATO is going to look like after we go from 16 to 28 nations....I look upon a proliferation of problems of unknown origins and unknown descriptions."
Warner's fears were shared by 40 other senators who voted with him for the moratorium but 59 nay votes defeated the amendment.
The voting throughout the debate crossed party lines forming unusual allies among Republicans and Democrats. President Bill Clinton at a White House press conference earlier on Thursday praised the Senate debate as "a model of bipartisan action."
He said that "by admitting Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic we come closer than ever to realizing the dream of a generation: a Europe that is united, democratic and secure for the first time since the rise of the nation states on the European continent."
But Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), echoing Warner's position, said shortly before the final vote that he would say no to making Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic NATO members because he could not be sure this would enhance Europe's security, improve U.S. relations with Russia, strengthen NATO or justify the extra cost to the United States.
Leahy said although Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had telephoned him from Beijing to try and change his mind, he remains "profoundly troubled ...because none of us can predict the future."
While opponents of NATO enlargement focused on the unknowability of Russia's behavior and NATO operations in the future, supporters of expansion argued that it was the right thing to do to rectify injustices of the past. Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware), the leading supporter of the measure took the floor repeatedly in eloquent rebuttal of the opposition's arguments.
In a final word before the vote he said again that a vote for ratification of NATO expansion "will right an historical injustice" and serve the interests of Russia, as well as the United States.
Referring to the establishment of NATO almost 50 years ago, Biden said the Senate's vote will usher in "another five decades of peace well into the next century."
Senator Warner said his vote will be cast in opposition but that he will accept the will of the Senate and do his best to make NATO expansion work. "I hope others who have been in opposition will also commit to do their very best to make it work," he said.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), who is of Polish descent, said she has yearned for this moment since the end of the Cold War when the captive nations of Central Europe threw off the yoke of Communism.
But the U.S. Senate's constitutional role is only to advise and consent to treaty changes. Ratification comes into force after Clinton signs the ratification resolution. White House officials say that is likely to happen over the next two days.
The United States thus becomes the fifth NATO country to approve the accession protocols to the NATO treaty, following Canada, Norway, Denmark and Germany. Legislatures of the remaining 11 NATO members are expected to ratify the treaty changes throughout this year.
Clinton has said Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should be formally accepted into NATO at a Washington summit scheduled for April 1999 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the alliance.