Senate Panel Oks Nato Expansion, Rushing To Full Senate Vote

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Tuesday, July 19, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave easy bipartisan approval Tuesday to admitting Finland and Sweden into NATO, as lawmakers aimed for quick Senate passage and a show of congressional support for expansion of the U.S. and European defense alliance in the face of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Committee members approved the expansion by voice vote. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and frequent critic of U.S. policy abroad, voted a neutral “present” rather than yes or no.

The vote sets the expansion up for a decision by the full Senate as soon as next week.

“We obviously want to see Finland and Sweden brought into the alliance as soon as possible,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters at the White House after Tuesday's vote.

“These are modern militaries, militaries that we know well,” Kirby said, stressing the strength that supporters say the two countries would bring to the military bloc.

NATO's 30 members are considering the admission of the two northern European countries against a backdrop of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russia's five-month-old offensive against a pro-West Ukraine government has led European and U.S. allies to tighten ranks and strengthen defenses against any further aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“As U.S. foreign policy priorities evolve to account for a changing world, what is self-evident is the future of the transatlantic partnership will be even more intertwined and integrated thanks to Putin’s recklessness," Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a joint statement with ranking Republican committee member Jim Risch of Idaho after his panel's endorsement.

“Today’s vote is further proof that the answer to aggression is not isolation, but deeper engagement with likeminded democracies,” Menendez said.

Putin's invasion led Finland and Sweden to abandon longstanding policies of military nonalignment and seek to join forces with NATO, with its joint conventional and nuclear forces.

President Joe Biden encouraged the move behind the scenes and welcomed leaders of the two countries to the White House in May to signal U.S. support.

The NATO expansion proposal marks a rare moment of Republican and Democratic agreement on a substantive issue before Congress. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in May that lawmakers were moving the membership applications at a faster pace than is usual for NATO expansion bids. He said he expected full Senate approval this month.

Lawmakers are rushing to approve the matter before the long August break.

The applications by Finland and Sweden initially had been expected to win easy approval from other NATO members as well. NATO member Turkey has rescinded an unexpected early announcement that it would block the two nations' admission.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned this week that Turkey could still move to deny the expansion, if Finland and Sweden fail to crack down on members of banned Turkish Kurdish groups in exile there and meet other Turkish demands.

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Lisa Mascaro and Will Weissert contributed to this report.