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New bipartisan breeze in U.S. Senate, but will it last?

U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks during the Reuters Washington Summit in Washington November 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) speaks during the Reuters Washington Summit in Washington November 9, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The normally divided U.S. Senate moved forward on Wednesday with a new, bipartisan agreement designed to ease partisan gridlock.

If lawmakers succeed under the accord in coming days to pass a bill to upgrade a federal child-care program, it could serve as a model to approve other legislation. But it's unlikely to lead to any sudden deals on stalled major legislation.

"I'm hopeful. I'm optimistic," said Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. "But I believe in not counting your chickens until they hatch."

"The goal here is to get off to a small but positive start with bipartisan bills, so that we can get back to legislating and tackling bigger issues in a responsible way," said Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York. "I hope it works."

Alexander and Schumer took the lead in recent months to craft the agreement to help the Senate set aside its partisan fights so that it could debate, amend and pass legislation.

The two worked with colleagues who have become embarrassed by a Democratic-led Senate and Republican-led House unable to do much of anything together in recent years.

In fact, Congress has been stalemated more often than not in recent years, twice taking the U.S. government to the brink of an unprecedented default and shutting it down last October because of a showdown over President Barack Obama's healthcare program.

Under the accord, when the Senate began considering the child-care bill on Wednesday, Majority Leader Harry Reid yielded control of the Senate floor.

The measure's two key sponsors - Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina - took charge and led the debate. They will help decide what amendments may be introduced.

"We want to change the tone so we change the tide to show that we can govern," Mikulski said.

SENATE DICTATORSHIP?

In recent years, Republicans have complained that Reid, a Nevada Democrat who often gets into procedural tussles, has acted as a "dictator" in refusing to permit them to offer amendments to a long list of bills.

Democrats countered that Republicans have been "obstructionists" who have stopped legislation and nominees with a record number of procedural roadblocks known as filibusters.

Last November, Democrats, who hold the Senate, 55-45, riled Republicans by changing the rules to reduce to 51 from 60 the number of votes needed to end a filibuster on all presidential nominations except those for the Supreme Court.

Republicans retaliated by blocking legislation while doing what they could to slow consideration of some lower-level judicial and executive branch nominees.

The new accord will return the Senate to a time, at least on some legislation, when committees, not the Senate leader, brought bills to the floor for consideration. Democrats say the agreement may reduce the tendency of Republicans to offer amendments not to improve a bill, but simply to try to kill it.

Standing in the Senate, Burr invited amendments from both sides of the political aisle to the bill, which would expand access and improve care for more than 1.5 million children.

"If you can make this bill better, come to the floor and offer an amendment," Burr said. "If you come to the floor and we think it makes the bill worse, we are going to vote against it."

"But we promise you this: you will have a vote," Burr said.

If successful, the accord may lead to the passage of a number of others bipartisan bills dealing with energy, job training and sentencing reform, aides said.

But it is unlikely to end stalemates over a number of key issues, including a raise in the minimum wage, climate change, tax reform and an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

Burr and Mikulski said they aim to pass their bill on Thursday and send it to the House for consideration. In recent years, many Senate-passed bills have not even been given a House vote. But Burr said he expects this one to be different.

Burr said he plans to talk to his close friend, House Speaker John Boehner, about the legislation. "I think it will get a very favorable reception in the House," Burr said.

Greg Valliere of the Potomac Research Group, a private firm that tracks Washington for investors, said: "Prospects for enacting the big stuff are still dim."

(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Jim Loney and Chizu Nomiyama)

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