The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a measure to limit the cost to taxpayers of weapons to the three Eastern European countries nominated to join the NATO military alliance.
The vote, 76-24, was the first of as many as two dozen amendments the Senate may tack onto the resolution to add Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to the military pact.
At issue in the amendment, designed to limit U.S. costs, was whether the three countries can afford the armed forces required for NATO membership or will end up as wards of the wealthier 16 member nations.
The amendment, proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would have restricted the amount of military subsidies the United States provides to the prospective members to 25 percent of total NATO aid to the countries. The aid would be in the form of grants, loan guarantees and surplus arms.
"Can they afford to bear the burden or not?" asked Harkin.
"We've been told they can. Now, I'm hearing, well, maybe they can't, we'll have to give them subsidies for weapons. If that's the case, do they have the economic strength to join NATO?"
In the second day of lively debate, senators jousted on a range of issues, from NATO's future missions to a proposal that the three former Warsaw Pact countries up for a key to the NATO club fully open their archives to help account for U.S. troops missing from past wars or cold war incidents.
The Senate will vote on these issues later this week.
Expanding NATO requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, but amending the resolution needs only a simple majority. Senate critics of expansion, conceding they face an uphill battle to defeat the resolution, say their strategy is to win approval of some amendments.
Few issues have raised more concern among senators about enlarging the alliance than the cost of expansion.
The issue is confusing because cost estimates are all over the map, from $125-billion to $1.5-billion, depending on the assumptions. But the Pentagon insists the best guess is $1.5-billion over 10 years, with Washington's share at $400-million.
"There has been a lot of misinformation about the costs, some of it understandable," Defense Secretary William Cohen said Monday.
Harkin argued that the administration and NATO expansion supporters were guilty of false advertising when they said enlargement would cost $400-million over a decade.
That figure covers only so-called "common costs" shared among all members, like maintaining NATO's headquarters buildings in Brussels and the alliance's fleet of AWACS radar planes.
It doesn't cover the various subsidies that the U.S. government pays for when it sells or transfers weapons to foreign countries.
A recent study by the World Policy Institute found that government subsidies represented $7.8-billion of $12-billion in U.S. arms exports in 1996.
"We're told it's only going to cost $400-million, but this could go up and up and up with subsidies," Harkin said.