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U.S. Foes of NATO Expansion Draw Out Senate Debate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Senate opponents of NATO expansion continued Wednesday to drag out debate on the plan, but the delays showed no signs of ultimately derailing the expected addition of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the alliance.

Reinforcing its reputation as the world’s most talkative club, the Senate droned through a third day of discussion, considering amendments--from accounting for service personnel missing in action from the Vietnam War to U.S. military policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Although amendments supported by expansion backers were approved and amendments submitted by opponents failed, there was enough crossover to make the votes a less-than-accurate predictor of the final decision.

Despite the drawn-out debate, there was no erosion in support for the expansion. Proponents continued to predict approval by a margin comfortably greater than the two-thirds vote required.

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The expansion plan is backed by President Clinton; Republican and Democratic Senate leaders; and the Senate’s foreign policy heavyweights, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), former Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and the committee’s senior Democrat, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.

“Most senators, I believe, are reaching the correct conclusion that bringing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the NATO alliance is the right thing to do,” Helms said.

For the crusty lawmaker, that was a rare expression of support for an item at the top of the administration’s foreign policy priority list.

But Helms said he was not simply going along with the president’s proposal, asserting that his committee persuaded the administration earlier this year to “make the necessary course corrections in [its] approach to expansion.”

Since its inception in 1949, the 12 member nations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have promised each other they would all respond with military force to an attack on any member country. That mutual security pledge has never been put to the test because no NATO member--there are now 16--has come under armed attack.

Proponents of the expansion argue that the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe deserve consideration as NATO members. But opponents maintain that it would be a mistake for the United States to extend its military protection to an ever-widening circle of new members.

Some Senate opponents say their objective is not to keep the proposed members out of the alliance, but to slow the expansion process.

“Is the United States prepared to add countries to the list of those that we pledge to defend as we would our own shores?” asked Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). “Must the United States continue to be the glue that holds Europe together, as was the case during the Cold War?”

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But Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recalled that as a teenager in 1956 she reacted in horror as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, crushing an attempt by Hungary to break free of domination from Moscow. “I am proud that now I can do something to make sure this does not happen again,” she said.

When the debate began earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said: “I think we have more than enough votes to pass this, in large measure because over the many, many months, Republicans and Democrats have had ample opportunity to talk to Secretary [of Defense William S.] Cohen, to talk to Secretary [of State Madeleine] Albright, to be briefed, to consider the repercussions . . . and, based upon all the gathering of information and evidence, I think that there’s a strong bipartisan coalition that wants to see this treaty pass.”

In action on amendments Wednesday, the Senate rejected a proposal by Hutchison to require the U.S. delegate to NATO to propose creation within the alliance of a conflict-resolution mechanism to mediate disputes between alliance members. She said that if NATO keeps growing, there will be increasing danger of ethnic conflict between members. Backers of expansion replied that the alliance has ample facilities to do that now and said the proposed change would be a distraction from NATO’s core function.

The Senate approved unanimously an amendment requiring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to open their Cold War-era archives to U.S. researchers trying to account for Vietnam War soldiers still missing. Although supporters of the amendment offered no evidence that the three former Soviet satellites had such information, lawmakers agreed that if such documents exist, they should be disclosed.

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