WASHINGTON - The Senate's senior Democrat and Republican reached agreement Thursday to impose modest limits on the filibuster, the delaying tactics that minority parties have long used to kill legislation.
The deal would reduce - but not eliminate - the number of times opponents can use filibusters and also limit the time spent debating some bills and nominations. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described the pact to rank-and-file lawmakers Thursday, and the Senate seemed likely to approve the restrictions later in the day.
The pact does not represent a dramatic reworking of Senate rules and leaves the minority party with far more power than it has in the House, where procedures allow a united majority party to muscle through its priorities.
But it would streamline some of the Senate's work and avoid what could have been prolonged, nasty battling between the two parties if Democrats - frustrated by the GOP's growing reliance on the delays - tried ramming through more decisive changes.
In an irony that underscores the Senate's complex rules, it was expected to take the chamber two votes to approve the changes.
The curbs on filibusters fall short of what Reid initially said he favored months ago. He wanted to completely ban the tactic's use when the Senate tries to begin debating a measure, and he threatened to use Democrats' strength in the Senate to enact that change and perhaps others by a simple majority vote.
That tactic is called the "nuclear option" because of the bitter partisan warfare it would likely trigger in the chamber, potentially halting almost any business the Senate tried to conduct.
Typically, rules changes take a two-thirds majority.
The restrictions also fall far short of what some of the Senate's newer Democrats were demanding.
Their proposals included requiring filibustering senators to actually debate on the chamber's floor, a practice immortalized in the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" but seldom used in recent years. Instead, most filibusters in recent decades occur when a senator simply informs majority Democrats that they will need the votes of 60 of the 100 senators to end delaying tactics.
The No. 2 Senate Democratic leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said this week that Democrats lacked enough votes to force that proposal through the Senate.
Durbin said Thursday that the tentative deal was "great for the Senate," and said lawmakers who wanted tighter curbs would have to settle for less.
"That's how this world works," Durbin told reporters. "People start aspiring at very high levels, then you get a negotiation, then you reach something called compromise. And I think we are at that point."
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said that while he and many other Republicans didn't believe the changes were needed, "This does this without doing irreparable damage to the Senate as an institution."