The Senate on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to ratify Finland and Sweden’s membership in NATO, in a show of bipartisan support for the Western alliance’s expansion spurred on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The chamber approved the resolution 95-1 with the sole objection coming from Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, who argued that further NATO expansion will distract the U.S. from confronting China’s rising threat.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, praised the overwhelming vote in favor of the two countries’ accession as a symbol of U.S. defiance in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Mr. Putin had cited previous NATO post-Cold War expansions as a prime justification for his attack on Kyiv.
“Today, at a moment when democracy in Europe is under attack, as belligerent autocrats like Putin clamor for European dominance, the U.S. Senate is voting in an overwhelmingly bipartisan fashion to approve Finland and Sweden’s accession into the NATO alliance,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor.
“Putin has tried to use his war in Ukraine to divide the West,” he said. “Instead today’s vote shows that our alliance is stronger than ever.”
NATO‘s proposed expansion brings two high-tech, Westernized military forces into the alliance. The addition of Finland would more than double the size of Russia’s land border with NATO countries.
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The two Nordic countries, which have long resisted formal ties to NATO, submitted their bids to join the alliance in May. President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the post-World War II alliance increasingly meaningful.
President Biden, who encouraged the two countries’ accession, hosted the two leaders at the White House just days after their bid was formally announced in a signal of support.
Senators on both sides of the aisle echoed their support for the two countries’ NATO accession during the chamber’s floor debate on the resolution.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez said the vote signals “the United States’ ongoing commitment to peace, stability and democracy in Europe and around the world.”
“Enlarging NATO is exactly the opposite of what Putin envisioned when he ordered his tanks to invade Ukraine,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “Indeed, he may have been trying to test the resolve of the alliance, and I am pleased that we have passed that test with overwhelming unity of vision and purpose.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, called Sweden and Finland’s accession into the alliance a “slam dunk” for national security.
“There is just no question that admitting these robust democratic countries with modern economies and capable, interoperable militaries will only strengthen the most successful military alliance in human history,” Mr. McConnell said on the Senate floor before the vote.
“If any senator is looking for a defensible excuse to vote ‘no,’ I wish them good luck,” he said in a veiled shot at Mr. Hawley.
Mr. Hawley argued that expanding NATO is not in the country’s best interest as it also confronts growing threats from China.
“Expanding NATO will require more United States forces in Europe,” he said. “More manpower, more resources, more spending — and not just now but over the long haul. But our greatest foreign adversary is not in Europe.”
But Mr. Hawley’s objections attracted no supporters in Wednesday’s debate.
“We can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said Idaho Sen. James E. Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Certainly we need to look at what is going on in Asia, … but what we’re talking about here is the defense of the North Atlantic. This is probably one of the easiest votes I’ll ever make in the United States Senate,” he said.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved two Nordic countries’ bid to join the alliance last month by voice vote. Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, voted “present” for that vote and in the final vote on Wednesday.
Mr. Paul, who frequently criticizes what he calls interventionist foreign policy moves, offered an amendment on Wednesday aimed at ensuring that the nation’s obligation to defend its NATO allies would not supersede Congress’ role in authorizing the use of military force. It was voted down 87-10.
The Senate adopted on a voice vote an amendment from Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, declaring that all NATO members should meet minimum spending thresholds of 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and that 20% of their defense budgets should be for “major equipment, including research and development.”
Both Sweden and Finland will require the endorsement of all 30 current NATO members before beginning the process of joining the alliance. NATO officials in Brussels expect the accession period to go quickly.
Turkey initially opposed Finland and Sweden’s accession over the two countries’ approach toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that Ankara considers to be a terrorist group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted his country’s objections in a trilateral deal with Sweden and Finland which he announced that the start of the NATO summit in June.
The deal paved the way for Mr. Biden to send the ratification protocols to the Senate in July, and the Senate leadership rushed to approve the measure before adjourning for August recess.