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While the Clinton administration sticks to a go-slow approach to NATO expansion, a bipartisan group in Congress is seeking rapid expansion of the alliance into Central and Eastern Europe.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole introduced legislation Tuesday to assist countries in that region in taking the steps necessary to join the Western alliance.Although at least nine House Democrats are co-sponsoring the measure, the issue has taken on a political tint as Dole seeks to gain support from Americans of Central European descent, particularly in key Midwestern states.

"The window of opportunity for consolidation of new freedom, independence and security in Central and Eastern Europe is closing," Dole said at a Capitol news conference. "Further delays will undermine not only the governments but the confidence of the people recently freed from the expansionist ambitions of aggressive neighbors."

Appearing for the second time in as many weeks with former Polish President Lech Walesa, Dole said the legislation would be one of the last bills he sponsors before retiring from the Senate to spend full time running for president.

Dole met Walesa in Chicago last week while campaigning and he pledged his support for the bill that gives high priority to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as prospective NATO members.

President Clinton has supported an eastward expansion of NATO, saying the only question is when, not whether, that occurs.

However, the Clinton administration is concerned about antagonizing Russia, particularly before the critical June 16 presidential election. Russian President Boris Yeltsin's re-election is in doubt and senior administration officials fear that a push toward NATO expansion could fuel Yeltsin's anti-Western opponents.

NATO expansion, a target of strident opposition from Russian nationalists, will not be taken up until December at NATO's winter meeting, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said during talks in Berlin with Russia's foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov.

If Dole and Gingrich avoided direct criticism of Clinton, other Republicans were less shy.

"There is no reason or excuse for the unending delay which the Clinton administration has orchestrated in not implementing this much-needed expansion of NATO," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of those on Dole's list of vice presidential picks.