WASHINGTON – The Senate voted unanimously to support adding seven eastern European nations to NATO (search), hailing the shift of former communist states into free-market democracies allied with the United States and Western Europe.
"This is historic for these seven countries, vital in continuing to strengthen the North Atlantic alliance and central to U.S. security and relationships in the world," said Foreign Relations Committee (search) Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
If approved by all 19 NATO member states, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia would be added to the alliance. Sixteen of the current members have not yet ratified the expansion.
Foreign ministers of the seven nations were in the Senate Gallery to witness the 96-0 vote, well over the two-thirds vote needed for ratification. They were to meet later with President Bush.
No House vote is needed on the expansion.
Noting that the vote was taking place on the 58th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe in World War II, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota described the expansion as another step toward "the creation of a Europe that is whole, that is free."
"This is the beginning of a partnership that will produce greater world stability, greater international involvement in world affairs and a partnership with countries that will increasingly become valuable partners and allies of the United States," he said.
In debate Wednesday, senators said the new members would boost NATO's forces by about 200,000 troops and add new bases that could be used for missions worldwide. It also would encourage the seven nations -- and other eastern European states wishing to become members -- to continue democratic and economic reforms.
Of the seven nations, only Slovenia was not part of U.S.-led coalition against Iraq.
"These countries already make significant contributions that strengthen the trans-Atlantic relationship," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio. "They've acted as de facto allies. In fact they've acted as better allies than some of the members that are currently in NATO."
The ratification vote comes at a tense time for NATO following a dispute over war with Iraq.
In February, Belgium, France and Germany blocked a request by Turkey for help in strengthening its defenses ahead of a war with Iraq. The three nations said such assistance could undermine hopes of avoiding a war.
Some senators questioned the future of the alliance and its commitment to fighting terrorism.
"NATO has been put at great risk by hostile French obstructionism that is as dangerous as it is cynical," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Let me be clear: I believe that the French government is pursuing a systematic campaign to undermine American leadership in Europe and the world."
Reflecting U.S. frustration over the three nations' blocking of the Turkish aid request, the Senate wants the alliance to consider dropping its requirement that decisions be unanimous.
In an amendment approved by voice vote, the Senate instructed Bush to raise the unanimity issue with NATO's policy-making North Atlantic Council (search) within 18 months.
The amendment was sponsored by Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va.; the panel's top Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan; and Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan. They said they were not advocating the changes yet, but believed they are worth considering -- especially as NATO expands to 26 members.
The amendment also asks NATO to consider a policy for suspending members that no longer adhere to democratic principles.
Lugar and administration officials have opposed the changes, saying NATO members have always managed to work out their differences and the United States would lose its own veto if unanimity were abolished. But Lugar voted for the amendment, saying it would not hurt to re-examine that position.