WASHINGTON -- Congress sent President Bush a bill Friday that endorses expanding NATO and authorizes security assistance for seven nations that hope to join the military alliance.
"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," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as debate concluded Friday.
The Senate voted 85-6 for the bill as Bush met at the White House with Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek of Slovenia, one of the seven nations seeking entry to NATO. The other six were members of the Warsaw Pact.
The legislation would authorize $55.5 million in military assistance for the seven countries but does not specifically call for admission of any of them NATO. The aid: Estonia, $6.5 million; Latvia, $7 million; Lithuania, $7.5 million; Slovakia, $8.5 million; Slovenia, $4.5 million; Bulgaria, $10 million; and Romania, $11.5 million.
The House approved the bill in November by a 372-46 vote.
Bush asked the Senate to complete work on the bill before he heads next week to a summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., a senior member of the committee.
NATO is to decide at a Prague summit in November whether to admit new members. The bill expresses support for that expansion, in line with statements by Bush last June and by former President Clinton in October 1996. The legislatures of all 19 current NATO members would be asked to ratify inclusion of any new invitees.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he voted against the measure because expanding NATO could hurt it and impose more costs on the United States.
Warner noted that other NATO countries' military budgets are not increasing at the same pace as the U.S. defense budget, and he wanted the Senate to ensure that any new NATO members "are ready and able to contribute to security."
Lugar, however, said, "It's tremendously important that we appreciate Europe, and NATO is the major way in which we indicate that appreciation and participation."
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