By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats backed away on Tuesday from a possible historic crackdown on filibusters in exchange for a Republican commitment not to use the procedural hurdles to stop some of President Barack Obama's long-stalled nominations.
The bipartisan agreement, reached after days of talks and jockeying for political position, will allow Obama to fill out his second-term team with top administrators overseeing efforts to protect workers, consumers and the environment.
It will also permit Republicans to retain their right to stop future nominees with filibusters, which have been used for years by the Senate's minority party against the majority.
"They (Republicans) are not sacrificing their right to filibuster, and we for damn sure aren't sacrificing our right to change the rules" to ban them, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, declared after tense negotiations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said, "Put this down as progress in the right direction."
Obama praised the compromise, saying in a statement, "I'm pleased that the Senate took action today to move forward on the nominees who have waited far too long for a vote."
But it was unclear how much progress there was, and when another partisan fight would break out in the highly divided and often gridlocked Senate.
Republican Senator John McCain, who helped negotiate the deal, said, "People walked to the edge of the abyss and then we walked back."
"I don't know that this is going to come again anytime soon. It may, depending on what goes on in the Senate," said McCain.
The first concrete sign of agreement came when the Senate, on a vote of 71-29, with 17 Republicans joining all 52 Democrats and two independents, cleared the way for an up-or-down vote on Obama's choice of Richard Cordray to serve as director of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.
A few hours later, the Senate confirmed Cordray by 66-34, ending Republican vows to oppose him until structural changes were made in the agency that was created in 2011 to crack down on Wall Street abuses and protect consumers from financial scams.
ORGANIZED LABOR'S INPUT
As part of the agreement, Democrats yielded to Republican demands that Obama withdraw two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board and offer new ones. The NLRB oversees union elections and enforces labor laws.
Obama on Tuesday nominated Nancy Schiffer, a former associate general counsel at the AFL-CIO labor organization, and Kent Hirozawa, chief counsel to NLRB chairman Mark Pearce, withdrawing two previous nominations. Republicans have agreed to allow the new choices to be confirmed by August 1, aides said.
"I'm pleased that the administration is going to send up two (new) nominees," McConnell said. "There will be an effort made to get them up for votes before the August recess."
Republicans had long urged Obama to replace the two earlier NLRB nominees, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin, who were temporarily appointed to the board by Obama in January 2012. A federal court invalidated the appointments. The case is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Senate is set to vote on Wednesday on Fred Hochberg's nomination as president of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, and in coming days on the nominations of Thomas Perez to be labor secretary and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
Democrats have received assurances all three will be confirmed, aides said.
McCain and Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who crafted a landmark immigration bill earlier this year, came together again to find a compromise on nominations.
Their talks intensified following a closed-door meeting attended by all 100 senators on Monday night where differences were aired and members of both sides spoke out against changing the rules on filibusters.
"We came to an agreement that we shouldn't change the rules, but we should let the agencies function," Schumer said.
"I am hopeful that this would set a better tone not just for the seven on the list here, but for all future appointments," Schumer said.
Filibusters have long been a tool in the Senate to permit the minority to extend debate and pressure the majority to compromise.
But in recent years, each side, when in the majority, has accused the minority of using the filibuster to create partisan gridlock rather than to find bipartisan solutions.
Without an agreement, Democrats, who control the Senate, 54-46, said their aim would have been to reduce to 51 from 60 the number of votes needed to end filibusters against executive branch nominees.
Normally 67 votes are needed to change Senate rules, but Democrats could do it with just 51 under "the nuclear option," which would involve a ruling by the Democratic chair, which is often filled by Vice President Joe Biden, the chamber's president.
(Additional Reporting by David Lawder and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Fred Barbash and Peter Cooney)