President Obama's triumphant second inaugural address last week overshadowed a significant victory for Senate Republicans, who scored in their battle over rules that would have prevented the GOP, the chamber's minority, from blocking legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., fed up with Republicans repeatedly stalling bills that require 60 votes to pass, had threatened to use the so-called nuclear option, which would have allowed him to more easily change Senate rules to weaken the 60-vote rule.
The filibuster has been used with increasing frequency, with Republicans invoking it more than 100 times in the last Congress to slow or block legislation. If Reid had used the nuclear option to diminish the filibuster, it could have left Republicans, who are in the minority, practically powerless to stop Democratic bills.
But using the nuclear option also would have provoked an all-out partisan war between Senate Democrats and Republicans and fundamentally altered the chamber's traditional role of slowing consideration of legislation.
In the end, Reid backed down and agreed to more modest reforms that discourage filibusters by allowing Republicans to amend legislation. The deal also speeds up the often days-long process needed to bring bills to the floor for votes and streamlines the confirmation process for judicial nominees, many of whom have been held up for months by Republicans.
The plan, brokered by Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in weeks of backroom talks, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate.
President Obama praised the agreement as "bipartisan" and "good news."
But Republicans, and many liberals, viewed it as a GOP victory because it left the filibuster intact.
"This country faces major crises in terms of the economy and unemployment, the deficit, global warming, health care, campaign finance reform, education and a crumbling infrastructure," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who voted against the measure. "In my view, none of these problems will be effectively addressed so long as one senator can demand 60 votes to pass legislation."
McConnell, who is headed for a potentially tough re-election bid in 2014, claimed victory in a message he sent to supporters in Kentucky. "We beat the liberals," he wrote.
Experts on Senate procedure praised the deal, saying even though the filibuster remains in place, gridlock will be eased, if only because the minority saw how close it came to the nuclear option.
"My reaction is there will probably be many fewer filibusters as a result of this agreement," former Senate Parliamentarian Robert Dove told The Washington Examiner. "I don't think anybody wants to push Sen. Reid to argue that this compromise was worthless and therefore he has to press ahead" with further reforms.
Gregory Koger, author of "Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate," said that even if Reid wanted to use the nuclear option, he may have lacked the full support of his own caucus members, who know they are just an election away from becoming the minority party themselves.
"While these reforms fall far short of the major changes proposed by frustrated senators," Koger said, "they do make incremental progress on some of the Senate's worst problems."