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.

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 Constitution assigns the Senate and House equal power for declaring war, maintaining the armed forces, assessing taxes, borrowing money, minting currency, regulating commerce, and making all laws “necessary and proper” for the operation of the government. However, the Senate holds exclusive authority to advise and consent on treaties and presidential nominations.

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.\

Brief History

The concept of having two houses of Congress—a “bicameral” legislature—resulted from the “Great Compromise” between large and small states reached at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. While membership of the House of Representatives is apportioned according to a state’s population, each state is granted equal representation in the Senate.

The Constitution requires that senators be at least thirty years of age, citizens of the United States, and residents of the states from which they are chosen. Until the enactment of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, senators were appointed by the state legislatures, rather than being elected by the people.

Since the day it first met in 1789, the House has opened its doors to the public. The Senate, however, met in secret session for its first few years, when it met in New York and Philadelphia. Public pressure encouraged the Senate to construct a visitors gallery, which opened in 1795. In 1800, when the federal government moved from Philadelphia to the newly created District of Columbia, both the House and Senate chambers provided public galleries.

Historically, the Senate has housed some of the nation’s leading statesmen, political figures, and most gifted orators, such as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. The French observer Alexis de Tocqueville once described the Senate as a body of “eloquent advocates, distinguished generals, wise magistrates and statesmen of note, whose language would at times do honor to the most remarkable parliamentary debates in Europe.”

During the 1800s, the Senate has dealt with issues of federal authority versus states’ rights, and the spread of enslavement into the Western territories. When attempts at compromise failed, and the nation split apart in the Civil War. Southern senators resigned as their states seceded from the Union, and the new Republican party led by President Abraham Lincoln became the majority of the greatly reduced Senate in 1861.

 Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, series of weak presidents allowed the Senate to become the strongest branch of the federal government. Senators at that time argued that the executive branch should be subordinate to the legislature and that presidents should be limited to enforcing the laws enacted by Congress.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the dynamic presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson challenged the dominance of the Senate, as the balance of power shifted toward the White House. Even so, the Senate dealt Wilson a major blow by rejecting the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War and created the League of Nations. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Senate enthusiastically backed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs of recovery, relief, and reform. 

At the depths of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Senate responded enthusiastically to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program of recovery, relief, and reform. An unprecedented burst of legislative activity profoundly altered the size, shape, and scope of the federal government. By 1937, however, Roosevelt's attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court with progressive Democrats alienated the Senate, as strong isolationist sentiments limited his ability to create new foreign policy. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the start of World War II brought an end to years of American isolationism, senators rallied behind the war effort. The slogan that “politics stops at the water's edge” expressed the rare new spirit of political bipartisanship in Congress. 

The volume of legislation coming before the Senate increase sharply during the Cold War, with the expansion of the national security programs, strategic foreign aid, and economic and military assistance to America's allies. During the 1950s, lengthy debates and filibusters in the Senate eventually led to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Updated by Robert Longley

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Trethan, Phaedra. "About the United States Senate." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/about-the-us-senate-3322271. Trethan, Phaedra. (2023, April 5). 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 June 10, 2023).