- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

Congress yesterday endorsed President Bush's call for a "robust" NATO enlargement and authorized $55.5 million in military assistance for seven countries believed to have good chances of joining in November.

The Senate approved the bill 85-6 just ahead of Mr. Bush's European trip next week, during which he will visit Russia, Germany, France and Italy. The House passed an identical bill six months ago, 372-46.

On May 28, at an air base outside Rome, Mr. Bush and the other 18 NATO heads of state will welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin as the alliance's newest ally. This will be the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Joint Council, which was established in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Tuesday.

The vote took place yesterday as Mr. Bush was meeting at the White House with Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek of Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic and one of the bill's beneficiaries.

"This bill will help NATO extend the zone of stability eastward and southward on the continent, so that some time in the next decade we'll be able to say, for the first time I think in modern history, that we have a Europe whole and free," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The bill, which doesn't specifically back membership for any of the seven nations from Central and Eastern Europe, authorizes an aid package of $10 million for Bulgaria, $6.5 million for Estonia, $7 million for Latvia, $7.5 million for Lithuania, $11.5 million for Romania, $8.5 million for Slovakia and $4.5 million for Slovenia.

The funds, approved by Congress last year, will "help those candidate countries meet the alliance's stringent membership requirements," Mr. Biden said.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and a senior member of the committee, echoed Mr. Biden's comments and said that "the Cold War may be over, but the security and welfare of America and Europe are very closely linked."

NATO will make a decision on this round of expansion, its second since the end of the Cold War, at a summit in Prague. In addition to the seven hopefuls, Albania and Macedonia also have applied but are not seen as viable candidates yet. Croatia, another former Yugoslav republic, also is an aspirant but it submitted its application too late to be considered for this round.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were the first former communist countries to become NATO members. They were invited in 1997 and joined two years later.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a letter to Congress that the new bill will "advance vital American interests in a strengthened and enlarged alliance" and reinforces "our nation's commitment to the achievement of freedom, peace and security in Europe."

But despite Congress' overwhelming support for NATO enlargement, some members are opposing it.

Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, voted against the bill, saying it gives the seven applicants premature hopes for admission. He also said that expansion would burden the United States with significant additional expenses.

"What we are doing is saying to the American taxpayer and the men and women of the armed forces of the United States that an attack against one is an attack against all," Mr. Warner said.

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