Senate

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Senate

The upper chamber, or smaller branch, of the U.S. Congress. The upper chamber of the legislature of most of the states.

The U.S. Constitution reserves for the Senate special powers not available to the other branch of Congress, the House of Representatives. These powers include the trial of all impeachments of federal officials; the ratification, by a two-thirds vote, of all treaties obtained by the president of the United States; and approval or rejection of all presidential appointments to the federal judiciary, ambassadorships, cabinet positions, and other significant Executive Branch posts.

The Senate, with terms of six years for its members—as opposed to two years for members of the House of Representatives—and a tradition of unlimited debate, has long prided itself as the more deliberate of the two branches of Congress. Under its rules a senator may speak on an issue indefinitely, which is known as the filibuster. Sixty senators present and voting may pass a motion of cloture to stop debate.

Members

Under Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution, the Senate is made up of two members from each state, each of whom has one vote. Unlike the House of Representatives, in which the entire chamber is up for election every two years, only one-third of the senators are up for reelection every two years.

The Constitution requires that a senator be at least thirty years of age and a U.S. citizen for a minimum of nine years. A senator must make her legal residence in the state that she represents.

The Constitution originally provided for the election of senators by state legislatures. However, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1913, mandated the election of senators by popular vote. The Senate may punish members for disorderly behavior. With the concurrence of two-thirds of the senators, it can expel a member.

When a vacancy occurs in the representation of any state in the Senate, the governor of that state issues a writ of election to fill the vacancy. The state legislature, however, can empower the governor to make a temporary appointment until the people fill the vacancy through an election.

The vice president of the United States is president of the Senate but has no vote unless the senators are equally divided on a question. His vote breaks the tie.

Committees

The Senate uses a committee system to evaluate, draft, and amend legislation before it is submitted to the full chamber. During the 108th Congress (2003–04), the Senate had sixteen standing, or permanent, committees: Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Appropriations; Armed Services; Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science, and Transportation; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; Finance; Foreign Relations; Governmental Affairs; Judiciary; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; Rules and Administration; Small Business; and Veterans' Affairs. The committees have an average of six to seven subcommittees. Senators typically belong to three committees and eight subcommittees. The Senate also has joint committees with the House, special committees, and investigative committees.

Officers

The vice president acts as the president of the Senate. In the vice president's absence, that position is filled by the president pro tempore, who is usually the most senior senator of the majority party. The majority leader has significant powers in the appointment of majority senators to committees. Political parties also elect majority and minority leaders to lead their efforts in the Senate. They are assisted by an assistant floor leader (whip) and a party secretary.

Other Senate officers include the secretary, who oversees Senate finances and official Senate pronouncements related to Impeachment proceedings and treaty ratification, and the sergeant at arms, who serves as the law enforcement and protocol officer and organizes ceremonial functions.

A Day in the Life of the Senate

As the bells ring in the halls of the Capitol and its office buildings, the U.S. Senate starts the day's session. The presiding officer of the Senate, sometimes the vice president but usually the president pro tempore, accompanies the Senate chaplain to the rostrum to lead the chamber in an opening prayer.

After short speeches by the majority and minority leaders, the Senate begins the "morning hour"—a session that generally lasts two hours. During this time senators introduce bills, resolutions, and committee reports and speak briefly on subjects of concern. Bills are referred to approrpiate committees at this time.

Following the morning hour, the Senate may take up executive or legislative business. If in executive session, the Senate considers treaties or nominations that the president has submitted for Senate approval. Before 1929 executive sessions were conducted behind closed doors. Since then, however, the public and the press have been allowed to observe these sessions.

Most of the Senate's time, however, is spent in legislative session. This time is used to debate and vote on bills. Bills with unanimous consent are enacted by a simple voice vote without debate, whereas more controversial bills may be debated at length and may undergo roll call votes. Some bills may not come up for a vote at all.

During debate of a bill, assistant floor leaders, or whips, from each party usually occupy the seats of the majority and minority leaders, located in the front row, center aisle, of the Senate chamber. They enforce established time limits, if any, for debate on specific bills. Frequently, only a few senators are on the Senate floor, while the majority are attending committee meetings or working in their offices. From their offices, senators may apprise themselves of Senate proceedings either through "hot lines" to the Senate floor or live television coverage on the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-Span), which began broadcasting Senate sessions in 1986.

A Senate legislative day may end in either adjournment or recess. If the Senate adjourns, a legislative day is officially over. If it merely recesses, however, the legislative day resumes on the following calendar day. In the case of a recess, the Senate may forego the rituals of the morning hour on the next calendar day. This is frequently done to save time during busy legislative sessions.

Sometimes, when there is a filibuster or heavy legislative load, the Senate does not stop at the end of the day but continues through the night. During these night sessions, a lantern at the top of the Capitol dome remains lit. The public has access to Senate galleries at all times that the Senate is in session, day or night.

Further readings

Bach, Stanley. 1996. "The Daily Order of Business." In The Legislative Process on the Senate Floor: An Introduction. Report 91-520 RCO. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.

Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. 2001. Treaties and Other International Agreements: The Role of the United States Senate: A Study. Washington, D.C.: GPO.

Hardeman, D.B. 1976. "Congress, United States." In Dictionary of American History. Vol. 2. Edited by Louise B. Ketz. New York: Scribner.

U.S. Senate Web site. Available online at <www.senate.gov> (accessed February 10, 2004).

Wirls, Daniel and Stephen. 2003. The Invention of the United States Senate. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

Cross-references

Congress of the United States; Constitution of the United States.

See: legislature

SENATE, government. The less numerous branch of the legislature.
     2. The constitution of the United States, article 1, s. 3, cl. 1, directs that "the senate of the United States shall be composed of two senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof for six years; and each senator shall have one vote." The vice president of the United States," to use the language of the constitution, art. 1, s. 3, cl. 4, "shall be president of the senate, but shall have no vote unless they be equally divided." In the senate each state in its political capacity, is represented, upon a footing of perfect equality, like a congress of sovereigns or ambassadors, or like an assembly of peers. It is unlike the house of representatives. where the people are represented. Story, Const. ch. 10.
     3. The senate of the United States is invested with legislative, executive and judicial powers.
     4.-1. It is a legislative body whose concurrence is requisite to the passage of every law. It may originate any bill, except those for raising revenue, which shall originate in the house of representatives; but the senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other bills. Const. art. 1, s. 7, el. I.
     5.-2. The senate is invested with executive authority in concluding treaties and making appointments. Vide President of the United States of America.
     6.-3. It is invested with judicial power when it is formed into a court for the trial of impeachments. See Courts of the United States.
     7. In most of the states the less numerous branch of the legislature bears the title of senate. In such a body the people are represented as well as in the other house. Vide article Congress; and, for the senates of the several states, the name of each state. See, also, articles Courts of the United States, I; House of Representatives; Vice-President of the United States.