Democrats and Republicans reached a détente in their long-running fight over Senate procedures Thursday, passing child-care legislation under a fresh process that could clear the way for the chamber to pass other bipartisan bills.

Under the agreement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) loosened his typically tight control over the chamber's amendment process in exchange for Republican assurances not to flood the Senate with measures deemed toxic by Democrats.

The effort worked, and passage of the child-care bill Thursday stood out in a session otherwise largely paralyzed by mistrust and partisan sparring in a midterm election year. Another deal on Thursday, to extend benefits for long-term unemployed Americans, reflected the bipartisan flavor of the day, though that agreement wasn't reached under the new arrangement.

The Senate is expected to consider the benefits deal after next week's recess; its prospects in the House aren't yet clear.

Senators said the new amendments deal suggested a path forward for a manufacturing bill federal sentencing changes and stalled energy-efficiency legislation.

"We have a number of suspects," said Mr. Reid.

Helping forge the agreement behind the scenes was Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a widely popular Republican lawmaker increasingly important to facilitating the chamber's bipartisan breakthroughs, even though he faces a primary challenge this year.

A former U.S. Education Secretary and Tennessee governor, Mr. Alexander has close ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and a history of working with Democrats, putting him in the middle of efforts to overcome the feuding that has bogged down legislation.

Mr. Alexander's role has become more important as the relationship between Messrs. Reid and McConnell has cooled. Though the two leaders talk on the Senate floor, they have not had a formal sit-down meeting since Dec. 13.

Last summer, Mr. Alexander helped put together a deal revamping how borrowing costs are set for student loans. In the fall, he helped bring together Messrs. Reid and McConnell for a meeting that led to the deal ending the partial government shutdown. And since January, he has been working with senior Democrats, meeting with Mr. Reid in the majority leader's office twice in January and over dinner with Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, to find a way around tensions resulting from a controversial Senate rules change last year and pass some low-profile bills.

"I don't know of a single senator who cares more about making the Senate work again than Lamar Alexander," Mr. Schumer said in an interview. "Because he has the trust of so many people on both sides of the aisle, he's extremely effective."

The two lawmakers, in consultation with their leaders, settled on a strategy that would enable some bipartisan bills approved by Senate committees to bypass procedural hurdles and be considered on the floor with more amendments than Mr. Reid has often allowed, beginning with Thursday's child-care bill, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Republicans have chafed against Mr. Reid's control of the amendment process, saying they haven't been able to get roll-call votes on enough of their own measures.

Democrats, in turn, have said GOP lawmakers have been bent on slowing down consideration of legislation and nominees.

Mr. Alexander is known as the "dean" of a group of 10 former governors in the Senate who began meeting regularly to focus on ways to end gridlock, said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a former West Virginia governor.

"When we're in trouble and you need somebody that's reasonable, he'll never bargain away his conservative position, but he's sure reasonable enough to reach out and want to work with you," said Mr. Manchin, who worked with Mr. Alexander on the student-loan deal.

"Senator Alexander is a conservative problem solver who's focused on results, and Republicans are fortunate to have him" as the top GOP lawmaker on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said John Ashbrook, Mr. McConnell's spokesman.

The bill passed Thursday on a 96-2 vote reauthorized and expanded legislation first enacted by President George H.W. Bush to help working families pay for child care with federal funds administered through the states. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised the open process for handling the dozens of amendments considered alongside the bill.

"It took a lot of restraint by a large number of senators on both sides of the aisle," Mr. Alexander said in an interview.

When lawmakers can't offer amendments, the Senate is "like being in the Grand Ole OpryRHP +0.39% and not being allowed to sing," he said. Thursday's vote "is a modest step in the direction the Senate ought to go."