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Senate averts 'nuclear option,' but leaves deeper questions unanswered

After a rare, closed meeting senators agreed to confirm several controversial Obama nominees. The deal avoided a 'nuclear option' that would have changed Senate rules on filibusters.

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Republican senators (from l.) Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, John Barrasso of Wyoming, John McCain of Arizona, and John Hoeven of North Dakota walk from the floor to a closed-door caucus after a compromise between the Democratic majority and the GOP minority on filibuster rules, at the Capitol on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid credited Senator McCain with helping broker a breakthrough.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Senate leaders stepped back Tuesday from the brink of the "nuclear option" abyss, working out a deal that will allow Democrats to confirm a handful of controversial presidential appointees. It will also keep existing filibuster rules intact, ending majority leader Harry Reid's drive to make changes that critics said would wipe away any impetus for compromise in the Senate.

The deal, coming just hours before Senator Reid might have pulled the trigger on the so-called nuclear option, represents a victory for Democrats who have been seething about Senate foot-dragging in confirming President Obama's nominees.

The pact’s larger import, however, is limited. It does not, for example, prevent future challenges to executive-branch nominees from the GOP minority or change the Senate rules in any way.

Indeed, the most liberal senators, who see rules of the Senate as overly restrictive, no doubt would have preferred the nuclear option – which would allow a rule change by vote of 51 senators, a bare majority, rather than the usual 67.

"There is, I would say, no assurance that we won’t be in this place again but it is our hope that this will serve as a model," says Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) of Oregon, an avid supporter of reforming the Senate's rules who nonetheless endorsed the compromise on Tuesday. "The value of it is that both sides understand that if the process is abused, we will back to the same place again."

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