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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted unanimously Thursday to support adding seven eastern European nations to NATO, 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 Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

With the vote, the United States becomes the third NATO member to have approved the expansion, joining Canada and Norway. Senators said the new members would boost the alliance, strengthen American security and encourage democracy throughout Europe.

The 16 remaining NATO must also endorse the expansion for Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to be admitted to the alliance.

Lugar said he hoped the Senate vote "might encourage other countries to proceed" with ratification.

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.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, speaking on Bulgarian radio from Washington, said "every Bulgarian has the good right to feel not only more secure, but also to be more proud" because of the vote. "We, Bulgarians, deserve it," Pasi added.

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."

The unanimous vote contrasted with the heated debate that surrounded the last round of expansion five years ago, when the Senate vote 80-19 to add the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. It also comes at a time when some senators question NATO's future because of the dispute within the alliance over the Iraq war.

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."

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.

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 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.

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