WASHINGTON - Senate leaders on Thursday reached an agreement for rule changes that would limit the use of the filibuster as a weapon in the partisan obstruction that has ground action in the chamber to a near standstill.

The deal, between Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and approved 78-16 on Thursday, fell short of the sweeping overhaul sought largely by liberal senators.

Excluded from the deal was a component that would have required any senator wishing to conduct a filibuster to remain talking on the Senate floor in the style actor James Stewart made famous in the film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Instead, the Senate leaders crafted a more modest agreement that would allow legislation to be more quickly brought up for debate and limit debate over certain nominations from the White House.

The past few years have seen record numbers of filibusters, largely led by Republicans seeking to block President Obama's agenda.

Democrats also sought to obstruct then-President George W. Bush with the filibuster.

A filibuster can tie the chamber in knots because it comes to an end only with a 60-vote supermajority, which has proved difficult in this partisan era. Even if the supermajority is reached, procedures still require at least three days for each filibuster to be overcome.

"The incremental 'reforms' in the agreement do not go nearly far enough to deliver meaningful change," said a statement from Fix the Senate Now, a coalition of legal scholars and liberal activists that has pushed the issue.

But the agreement forged between Reid and McConnell will help usher legislation along more swiftly in the slow-moving chamber. Under the deal, senators give up their ability to hold endless debate on the procedural step that is required to proceed to a piece of legislation.

In exchange for giving up the right to filibuster on the motion to proceed, both sides are guaranteed the opportunity to offer two amendments to the bill -- a particularly important provision for the minority Republicans.

Even though senators could still filibuster the actual bill, eliminating the filibuster on the procedural step would cut days off the debate time.