By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Democratic-led U.S. Senate changed its rules on Thursday in a bid to ease partisan gridlock blamed for turning the chamber into a legislative graveyard.
Senators approved the changes on bipartisan votes of 78-16 and 86-9. The changes fell far short, however, of what many Democratic reformers wanted. They preserved the right of minority Republicans to block votes on legislation with procedural roadblocks known as filibusters.
But the revisions drew praise from President Barack Obama, who said in a statement, "Too often over the past four years, a single senator or a handful of senators has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point.
"At a time when we face critical decisions on a whole range of issues - from preventing further gun violence, to reforming our broken immigration system, to getting our fiscal house in order and creating good paying jobs - we cannot afford unnecessary obstruction," he said.
Sixty votes will still be needed in the 100-member chamber to end a filibuster - despite calls by some Democrats to reduce the figure to as few as 51.
In exchange, Republicans will no longer be able to stop senators from beginning consideration of a bill - provided both sides are given votes on at least two amendments.
Rule changes would also expedite consideration of low-level presidential nominations, reduce debate time before some votes and require filibustering senators to make objections known.
"Perhaps I'm too optimistic, but hopefully because of this we will be able to pass legislation," said Republican Senator John McCain.
That in turn, McCain said, might help raise the chamber's record low approval ratings in recent years, which now stand at about 15 percent.
Assistant Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin voiced confidence the rule changes would make for a more productive chamber provided there was "good will" on both sides.
"There are always ways to find some exception, a little loophole here, a little loophole there," Durbin said.
"I hope there will be a more positive reaction to these rules changes and get the Senate back into the business of what it's supposed to be, the most deliberative body in the body politic of America," Durbin said.
WEEKS OF NEGOTIATION
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, drafted the rule changes after weeks of negotiations.
If there had been no compromise and Democrats tried to force changes without the approval of Republicans, there likely would have been partisan fights that turned the chamber into knots.
Since 2007, Reid has filed nearly 400 cloture motions to stop Republican-backed filibusters. He stopped less than half of them with the needed 60 votes.
In the other cases, Republicans blocked legislation, even though most senators backed it. Critics complained they were effectively violating a basic tenet of democracy - majority rule.
Filibuster proponents say procedural roadblocks are needed to protect the rights of the minority and force the majority to compromise.
A number of Senate Democrats defend the right to filibuster, reasoning they will be in the minority at some point and will want to use it.
Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley applauded the rule change, but preferred tougher curbs on filibusters that are ostensibly waged to give senators more time to debate.
"If 41 senators vote for more debate, then senators should have the courage of their convictions to stand on the floor and make their case," Merkley said. "Then the American people could decide if obstructing senators are heroes or bums."
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)