The Senate on Wednesday voted to take up the arms limitation pact with Russia, President Obama's top foreign policy objective in the lame-duck congressional session.
In a 66-32 vote, the Senate agreed to begin debate on the treaty, which requires 67 votes for ratification. Eight Republicans voted with Democrats to open discussion.
Some Republicans had previously indicated they would stall deliberations by insisting every word be read aloud. The move prompted a sharp retort from the White House.
Speaking on the floor, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the reading of the bill was not essential.
As part of the legislative agreement between McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, debate will begin on Wednesday and will continue on Thursday. No vote is expected before then, Reid indicated.
Earlier Wednesday, the White House lashed out in unusually harsh language at Senate Republicans who were threatening to read aloud every word of the proposed nuclear arms treaty as a way of running out the clock on deliberations.
The White House had worked closely with Republicans to hammer out a compromise on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, but that cooperation has been melting away as the lame-duck Congress turns to tougher issues, including the arms pact, known as New START, and a proposed omnibus spending package of about $1.1 trillion.
Both measures are strongly opposed by conservative Republicans who want Congress to approve just the tax cuts and a continuing resolution on government funding and then go home. That would leave the arms treaty, signed last April, unratified and would deny Obama a key foreign-policy victory.
One way Republicans can slow down the process is by reading aloud every word in pending bills, a threat made by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). The treaty is 17 pages long, but the accompanying protocol and documents is another 165 pages.
"This is a new low in putting political stunts ahead of our national security, and it is exactly the kind of Washington game-playing that the American people are sick of," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a prepared statement.
"While some express concern that the Senate doesn't have time to debate the treaty, Senator DeMint wants to waste 12 hours to read the text of a treaty that has been available to every member of the Senate and the public for more than eight months,” Gibbs stated. “Every minute that the START Treaty is being read on the Senate floor increases the time that we lack verification of Russia's nuclear arsenal. It is the height of hypocrisy to complain that there is not enough time to consider this treaty, while wasting so much time reading aloud a document that was submitted to the Senate months ago."
Republicans have said they want to put off debate on the treaty, the latest step in a process of cutting nuclear arms that goes back decades and has been supported by both Republican and Democratic administrations. They argue they need more time to examine its impact on missile defense and nuclear modernization.
In a letter, 10 incoming Republican senators have urged that the treaty be put off until the new Senate is sworn in and have also questioned whether ratification should be considered in a lame-duck session.
But Democrats, led by Obama, have pushed for ratification, which requires 67 votes. Reid has argued that the votes are there for ratification, if the treaty can get past the legislative roadblocks.
"Every day we delay is another day it is easier for terrorists to get their hands on a nuclear weapon,” Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement. “But this tiny minority of Republican senators would rather play games than make sure we have American inspectors on the ground monitoring Russia's nuclear stockpile.”
The treaty has been endorsed by six former secretaries of state who served in GOP administrations, but has been opposed by at least five Republicans who are seeking the 2012 presidential nomination.