FILE PHOTO - A NATO flag flies at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Balkan country of Montenegro was on the verge of becoming NATO's newest member on Monday after U.S. senators voted overwhelmingly to clear the way for a long-delayed final vote on its accession to the alliance.
The vote was 97-2 in favour of ending debate and allowing a vote later this week on the ratification of its NATO membership, far more than the 60 needed. The only two "no" votes came from Republican Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee.
Before the vote, Paul argued that there was no point in forcing American taxpayers to take on the risk of defending such a small country if it were attacked, a condition of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Arguing that Montenegro has only 2,000 people in its military, Paul said its membership would "add another country to the welfare wagon of NATO."
Backers of the former Yugoslav republic's membership said it was important to support the countries of eastern Europe that share democratic values against Russian aggression, and to reinforce their ties to the West.
"Montenegro is trying to do everything that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin hates, where you actually can vote for your own leaders," said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the party's leading foreign policy voices.
Reuters reported last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote to the leaders of the Senate earlier this month to say Montenegro's membership in NATO was "strongly in the interests of the United States." [nL2N1GY1VK]
The vote in the U.S. Senate had been held up for months as Senators Paul and Lee blocked a quick vote.
Senate aides said they expected a final vote on Tuesday or Wednesday. They said they expected Montenegro's NATO membership would receive the required two-thirds majority.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)