WASHINGTON (AP) — Montenegro is on the verge of becoming NATO's newest member after ratification of the tiny Balkan nation's admission into the alliance cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate.
Senators on Monday agreed overwhelmingly, 97-2, to end debate and hold a final vote later this week.
Montenegro is in the middle of a clash between the West and Russia over influence in the Balkans. The outcome could determine the way the region is heading: toward NATO and the European Union, or back to Russia's sphere of influence.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pressed the Senate to act quickly, telling Senate leaders earlier this month that the chamber's approval should come ahead of a summit scheduled for May that will include NATO heads of state and government. He said the U.S. is one of the last remaining NATO members not to have given Montenegro's bid "full parliamentary approval."
"Montenegro's participation in the May NATO summit as a full member, not an observer, will send a strong signal of transatlantic unity and that no third parties have veto power over NATO decisions," Tillerson wrote in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Tillerson said Montenegro's membership would give NATO a contiguous border along the Adriatic coast.
Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the senior U.S. military commander in Europe, said last week that failing to admit Montenegro would send the wrong signal to other nations eager to join the alliance.
"It's absolutely critical they be brought into NATO," Scaparrotti told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If we were to lose this, it would set back many of the other countries and peoples, particularly in Eastern Europe, who are looking forward to, and have their eyes set on the West."
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had blocked an earlier attempt to act on Montenegro's ratification despite strong support for the move from Democrats and Republicans. Paul has suggested that adding Montenegro, which had once been a staunch Russian ally, could lead to heightened tension with Moscow, possibly even war.
That touched off name-calling between Paul and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a proponent of ratification.
After the Kentucky senator stopped the move, McCain accused Paul of "working for Vladimir Putin," the Russian president. A day later, Paul said the 80-year-old senator was "a little bit unhinged," and may be "past his prime."
Paul and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, were the two lawmakers who voted no.
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