It's a living legal community making laws accessible and interactive. Click Here to get Started »
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 <http://www.senate.gov> (accessed February 10, 2004).
Wirls, Daniel and Stephen. 2003. The Invention of the United States Senate. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.