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(USA Today)-- WASHINGTON - The Senate voted Thursday to alter its parliamentary rules to make it easier to move legislation and judicial nominations through the chamber.

The bipartisan deal, negotiated by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., makes only minor changes. But lawmakers on both sides were hopeful that it would set a productive tone for the 113th Congress.

The new rules:

  • Make it harder to filibuster the "motion to proceed," which allows the Senate to start debate on a piece of legislation. Senators can still filibuster the actual legislation.
  • Eliminate some of the procedural hurdles to send legislation to a conference with the U.S. House to resolve differences between competing bills.
  • Make it easier to confirm certain judicial nominations. It does not apply to Cabinet positions, circuit court nominations or Supreme Court nominations.

"It's a bipartisan agreement, instead of a confrontation," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., after a closed-door meeting in which Democratic senators were briefed on the rules changes. "That is a very positive environment to start the session."

The changes were driven by Reid, who has grown increasingly frustrated at the use of delaying tactics to slow down legislative business. The previous session of Congress was the least productive two years since the end of the World War II era.

For months, Reid pledged to take unilateral action, dubbed the "nuclear option," when the new Congress began to change the rules if he could not come to terms with McConnell on ways to improve how the Senate does business.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., was part of a group of senators who urged Reid to find an agreement to avoid using the "nuclear option" which Levin said would "turned gridlock in to a meltdown" in the Senate. Under that scenario, Reid could have moved to change rules along partisan lines with just 51 votes, upending a fundamental principle in the Senate - unlike the majority-driven U.S. House - that ensures rights of the minority party.

"Look, we just can't have a situation in the Senate where the majority can decide what the rules are at any time, even at the beginning of a session," Levin said.

"There's a very positive feeling among the people in our caucus, and the fact that the two leaders have been able to work it out together is great for the Senate," Durbin said.

The rules change could be approved as early as Thursday. The Senate is then scheduled to take up legislation providing financial aid for Superstorm Sandy recovery.

"We all want the Senate to function," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "I'm optimistic about it."

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