About the United States Senate

One Legislative Body, 100 Voices

US Capitol 1900
The US Capitol Bulding in 1900. Getty Images

The United States Senate is the upper chamber in the legislative branch of the federal government. It is considered to be a more powerful body than the lower chamber, the House of Representatives.

Fast Facts: United States Senate

  • The United States Senate is part of the Legislative Branch of government and is made up of 100 members called “Senators.”
  • Each State is represented by two Senators elected statewide, rather than by voting districts.
  • Senators serve an unlimited number of six-year terms, staggered in a way to prevent both Senators representing a particular state from being up for reelection at the same time.
  • The Senate is presided over by the Vice President of the United States, who as “president of the Senate,” is allowed to vote on legislation in the event of a tie vote.
  • Along with its own exclusive powers, the Senate shares many of the same constitutional powers granted to the House of Representatives.

The Senate is made up of 100 members called senators. Each state is equally represented by two senators, regardless of the state’s population. Unlike members of the House, who represent individual geographic congressional districts within the states, senators represent the entire state. Senators serve rotating six-year terms and are popularly elected by their constituents. The six-year terms are staggered, with about one-third of the seats up for election every two years. The terms are staggered in such a way that both Senate seats from any state are not contested in the same general election, except when necessary to fill a vacancy.

Until enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were appointed by the state legislatures, rather than being elected by the people.

The Senate conducts its legislative business in the north wing of the U.S. Capitol Building, in Washington, D.C. 

Leading the Senate

The Vice President of the United States presides over the Senate and casts the deciding vote in the event of a tie. The Senate leadership also includes president pro tempore who presides in the absence of the vice president, a majority leader who appoints members to lead and serve on various committees, and a minority leader. Both parties —majority and minority—also have a whip who helps marshal senators’ votes along party lines.

In presiding over the Senate, the vice president’s powers are limited by strict rules adopted by the Senate centuries ago. While present in the Senate chambers, the vice president is expected to speak only when ruling on parliamentary questions and when reporting the results of the Electoral College vote in presidential elections. On a day-to-day basis, meetings of the Senate are presided over by the president pro tempore of the Senate or, more typically, by a junior Senator designated on a rotating basis.

The Powers of the Senate

The Senate's power derives from more than just its relatively exclusive membership; it also is granted specific powers in the Constitution. In addition to the many powers granted jointly to both houses of Congress, the Constitution enumerates the role of the upper body specifically in Article I, Section 3.

While the House of Representatives has the power to recommend impeachment of a sitting president, vice president or other civic officials such as a judge for "high crimes and misdemeanors," as written in the Constitution, the Senate is the sole jury once impeachment goes to trial. With a two-thirds majority, the Senate may thus remove an official from office. Three presidents – Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump – have been impeached by the House of Representatives; all three were then acquitted by the Senate.

The President of the United States has the power to negotiate treaties and agreements with other nations, but the Senate must ratify them by a two-thirds vote in order to take effect. This isn't the only way the Senate balances the power of the president. All presidential appointees, including Cabinet members, judicial appointees and ambassadors must be confirmed by the Senate, which can call any nominees to testify before it.

The Senate also investigates matters of national interest. There have been special investigations of matters ranging from the Vietnam War to organized crime to the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up.

The More 'Deliberate' Chamber

The Senate is commonly the more deliberative of the two chambers of Congress; theoretically, a debate on the floor may go on indefinitely, and some seem to. Senators may filibuster, or delay further action by the body, by debating it at length; the only way to end a filibuster is through a motion of cloture, which requires the vote of 60 senators.

The Senate Committee System

The Senate, like the House of Representatives, sends bills to committees before bringing them before the full chamber; it also has committees which perform specific non-legislative functions as well. The Senate's committees include:

  • 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;
  • health, education, labor, and pensions;
  • homeland security and governmental affairs;
  • judiciary;
  • rules and administration;
  • small business and entrepreneurship;
    and veterans' affairs.
  • There are also special committees on aging, ethics, intelligence and Indian affairs; and joint committees with the House of Representatives.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Trethan, Phaedra. "About the United States Senate." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/about-the-us-senate-3322271. Trethan, Phaedra. (2021, February 16). About the United States Senate. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-us-senate-3322271 Trethan, Phaedra. "About the United States Senate." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/about-the-us-senate-3322271 (accessed September 24, 2021).

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