Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
United States Senate
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

United States Senate

The United States Senate is the upper house of the Congress of the United States, smaller than the U.S. House of Representatives. Together, they compose the legislative branch of the United States government.


Each state elects two senators through statewide elections, for a total of 100 senators. The Constitution of the United States endows the U.S. Senate, in addition to its duty of passing all legislation through Congress, with the exclusive responsibility of confirming certain Presidential appointments, including federal judges and cabinet secretaries as part of the system of checks and balances. It also ratifies international treaties negotiated by the executive.

The Senate chamber is located in the north wing of the U. S. Capitol building, in Washington, D.C.

Table of contents
1 Operation
2 Leadership
3 Composition and elections
4 Committees
5 During the 108th Congress (2003-2005)
6 History
7 See also
8 External links


trial of Bill Clinton (1999)]]

Unlike the United States House of Representatives there are no strict rules regarding the debate, and one strategy used by senators to kill a bill is to filibuster which is to continuously debate the bill, thereby preventing its passage. On March 8, 1917 the power of the filibuster was considerably reduced in theory by the cloture rule in which 60 senators can sign a petition to end debate (the initial version of the rule called for 2/3 but that was later reduced to 3/5). In practice, this rule is rarely used as Senators are reluctant to end debate so forcefully and may avoid breaking a filibuster to prevent retaliation against possible future filibusters of their own. The first ongoing filibuster in the Senate began on February 18, 1841 and lasted until March 11. The longest individual filibuster speech in the U.S. Senate was delivered by Strom Thurmond. He spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He began by reading the entire text of each state's election laws.

See also: U.S. Senate procedures


The Vice President of the United States also serves as President of the Senate and is empowered with presiding over all proceedings and breaking tie votes. However, in practice, the Vice President rarely enters the Senate chamber, and the members of the Senate choose a President pro tempore (usually the most senior member of the majority party) to stand in the Vice President's absence. However, even the President pro tempore delegates his duties as presiding officer in the Senate chamber to junior members because (unlike in the House) the presiding officer is accorded little authority.

The agenda of the Senate is determined by the Majority floor leader (leader of the party with a majority of seats), who is assisted by a Majority whip (responsible for "whipping" party members in line). Their counterparts across the aisle are the Minority floor leader and Minority whip.

When the major parties are evenly split, the party affiliation of the Vice President, as the tie-breaker vote, determines which is the majority party.

Position Name Party State Since
President Richard B. Cheney (ex officio, Vice President of the United States Republican Wyoming 2001
President Pro Tempore Theodore F. Stevens Republican Alaska 2003

Majority Leadership

Position Name Party State Since
Majority Leader William H. Frist Republican Tennessee 2001
Republican Whip A. Mitchell McConnell Jr Republican Kentucky 2003
Republican Conference Chairman Richard J. Santorum Republican Pennsylvania 2001
Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon L. Kyl Republican Arizona 2003
Republican Conference Secretary Kay Bailey Hutchison Republican Texas 2001
Republican Campaign Committee Chairman George F. Allen Jr Republican Virginia 2003

Minority Leadership

Position Name Party State Since
Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle Democratic South Dakota 2003
Democratic Whip Harry M. Reid Democratic Nevada 1999
Democratic Conference Chairman Thomas A. Daschle (also Democratic leader) Democratic South Dakota 2003
Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron L. Dorgan Democratic North Dakota 1999
Democratic Conference Secretary Barbara A. Mikulski Democratic Maryland 1995
Democratic Campaign Committee Chairman Jon S. Corzine Democratic New Jersey 2003

Composition and elections

With two Senators from each state, the Senate presently has 100 members. For details, see the current list of United States Senators. When it first convened on March 4, 1789, the Senate had 21 members--two from each of the 11 states that had ratified the Constitution to that point except New York, which did not seat its second Senator until July 16. Senators serve for terms of six years; the terms are staggered so that approximately one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years: each time there are elections in about 33 states for one of the two seats. They coincide with the elections for the House of Representatives; alternately they coincide with the presidential election; when they do not, they are called mid-term elections.

Before 1913, state legislatures appointed the Senators (an example of indirect election); since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, Senators have been elected directly by voters. Senators are elected by their state as a whole; if both Senate seats are contested in one election year, the elections will be separate and all voters in the state will cast votes for one candidate in each of the two races. Because of the staggered terms, this will only occur when a Senator fails to complete a full six year term due to death or resignation, or when a state joins the union, in which case one of the two usually serves a four year term.

If a vacancy occurs between elections, generally the governor of the state appoints a replacement to serve as senator until the next biennial election.

As put forth in Article I, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, a senator must be: at least 30 years of age, a citizen of the United States for the past nine years, and reside in the state he or she represents at the time of election.

See also: List of former members of the U.S. Senate


Much of the business of the Senate is done in Congressional committees. Committees usually have their own staffs, separate from the staffs of individual members. Committees often have subcommittees. Each committee has a chairperson and a ranking minority leader.

Because the Senate is smaller, the committees within the Senate are generally less powerful than the corresponding committees in the House. The exceptions to this are the Judiciary Committee which reviews Presidential appointments to federal judgeships, and the Foreign Relations Committee which reviews treaties. See also: List of Senate committees

Control of Senate committees is strictly by seniority within the majority party, a situation which Hubert Humphrey once described as the “most sacred cow in the legislative zoo.” A committee chairman cannot be removed from power even if he is senile or never attends the Senate. In 1946, 81 year old Arthur Capper of Kansas became chairman of the Agriculture Committee, even though “he could neither make himself understook, nor understand others.” Also in the 1940’s, Carter Glass of Virginia “chaired” Appropriations, even though he had not appeared in the Senate since 1942. (Master of the Senate, 82-3)

No bill can come out of committee without the committee chairman’s consent. In the past, committee chairmen were more forceful in exerting this privilege than they are today, but there are still chairmen who frustrate the will of the majority of their own party. Jesse Helms, for instance, was notorious for using her perch on the Foreign Relations committee to stop legislation he opposed, often dealing with the United Nations. Helms reveled in the nickname “Senator No.”

Standing Committees of the U.S. Senate

Joint Committees of Congress

Special, Select and Other Committees of the U.S. Senate

During the 108th Congress (2003-2005)

+ + + + + + + ++ + + + + + + + ++ + + + + + + +
+ + + + + + + ++ + + + + + + + ++ + + + + + + +
+ * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * ** * * * * * * * ** * * * * * -

+Republicans: 51 -Independent: 1 (James Jeffords (I-VT) votes with the Democrats.)
*Democrats: 48 +

see: List of United States Senators for complete party rankings by senator.


in the Old Senate Chamber.]]

The Senate, named after the ancient
Roman Senate, was designed as a more deliberative body than the House. Edmund Randolph called for its members to be "less than the House of Commons [sic] . .. to restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy." According to James Madison, "The use of the Senate is to consist in proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." Instead of two year terms as in the House, Senators serve six year terms, giving them more authority to ignore mass sentiment in favor of the country's broad interests. The smaller number of members and staggered terms also give the Senate a greater sense of community.

Many of the Founding Fathers greatly admired the British government. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton called "the British government the best in the world," and said "he doubted whether anything short of it would do in America." In his "Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States," Adams said "the English Constitution is, in theory, both for the adjustment of the balance and the prevention of its vibrations, the most stupendous fabric of human invention." In the minds of many of the Founding Fathers, the US Senate would be an American kind of House of Lords. John Dickinson said the Senate should "consist of the most distinguished characters, distinguished for their rank in life and their weight of property, and bearning as strong a likeness to the British House of Lords as possible." (Harpers, May 2004, 42)

Devised as part of the Connecticut Compromise, the Senate was also intended to give states with smaller populations equal standing with larger states, which are given proportionately more Representation in the House. However, at the time of the Connecticut Compromise, the largest state, Virginia, had only twelve times the population of the smallest state, Delaware. Today, the largest state, California, has a population that is seventy times greater than the population of the smallest state, Wyoming.

The apportionment scheme of the U.S. Senate was controversial at the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton, who was joined in opposition to equal suffrage by Madison, said equal representation despite population differences "shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling." Referring to those who demanded equal representation, Madison called for the Convention to "to renounce a principle wch. was confessedly unjust."

The delegates representing a majority of Americans might have carried the day, but at the Constitutional Convention, each state had an equal vote. The five states that favored equal proportionment in the Senate--Delaware, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut--actually only represented one third of the nation's population. The four states that voted against the proposal--Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia--actually represented more people than the proponents. Convention delagate James Wilson wrote "Our Constituents, had they voted as their representatives did, would have stood as 2/3 against equality, and 1/3 only in favor of it." (Harpers Magazine, May 2004, 36) One reason the large states accepted the Connecticut Compromise was a fear that the small states would either refuse to join the Union, or, as Gunning Bedford, Jr. of Delaware threatened, "the small ones w[ould] find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice." (New Republic, August 7th, 2002)

In Federalist No. 62, James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” openly admitted that the equal suffrage in the Senate was a compromise, a “lesser evil,” and not born out of any political theory. “[I]t is superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but ‘of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable.’ “

The Senate originally met, virtually in secret, on the second floor of Federal Hall in New York City in a room that allowed no spectators. For five years, no notes were published on Senate proceedings.

A procedural issue of the early Senate was what role should the vice-president, the President of the Senate have? At first, the first vice-president was allowed to craft legislation and participate in debates, but those rights were taken away relatively quickly. Later vice-presidents made Senate attendance a rarity, but John Adams seldom missed a session. However, Adams’ regal clothing, love of ceremony and titles, and tendency to lecture made him somewhat of a laughingstock. Interestingly, although the Founders intended the Senate to be the slower legislative body, in the early years of the Republic, it was the House that took its time passing legislation. Both Hamilton’s Bank of the United States and Assumption Bill easily passed the Senate, only to meet opposition from the House.

Thomas Jefferson began the vice-presidential tradition of only attending Senate sessions on special occasions. Despite his frequent absences, Jefferson did make his mark on the body in the form of the Senate book of parliamentary procedure, the one that is still used to this day.

The decades before the Civil War are thought of as the "Golden Age" of the Senate. The Founding Fathers had intended the Senate to be a dam against the whims of public opinion, and they certainly succeeded. Backed by public opinion and President Jefferson, in 1804, the House voted to impeach Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase 73-32. At the Senate, the president’s power and public opinion met their match, on twenty-three counts of impeachment, the Republican-dominated Senate voted against impeachment 18-16.

The Senate seemed to bring out the best in Aaron Burr, who as vice president presided over the impeachment trial. Even critics of Burr conceded that he handled himself with great dignity and the trial with fairness. At the conclusion of the trial Burr said

This House is a sanctuary; a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty; and it is here-–in this exalted refuge; here if anywhere, will resistance be made to the storms of political phrensy and the silent arts of corruption.” (Master of the Senate, 14)

Over the next few decades the Senate rose in reputation in the United States and the world. John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Stephen Douglas, and Henry Clay overshadowed several presidents. Sir Henry Maine called the Senate "the only thoroughly successful institution which has been established since the tide of modern democracy began to run." William Gladstone said the Senate was "the most remarkable of all the inventions of modern politics." (Ibid, 23)

During the pre-Civil War decades, the nation had two contentious arguments over the North-South balance in the Senate. Since the banning of slavery north of the Mason-Dixon line around the turn of the 19th century, there had always been equal numbers of slave and free states. In 1820 and 1850, political warfare broke out between slave and free states when Missouri and California asked to join the union as slave and free states, respectively. Both cases were resolved by compromises; in 1820 Maine was admitted to the Union as a free state to counterbalance Missouri (see Missouri Compromise) and in 1850 the North agreed to several provisions, one of which was a stronger Fugitive Slave Law (see Compromise of 1850).

The Senate has always been about giving political minorities the power to block unwanted legislation, and during the Civil War, when the South had no representation in the Senate, it became apparent how the South’s had shackled the nation. Only with the absence of Southern Senators could the Senate pass legislation allowing a transcontinental railroad, encouraging Western settlement, and establishing public colleges from the proceeds of the sale of public lands.

The post-Civil War Senate fell into a period of irrelevancy and corruption. At a time when Senators were chosen by state legislatures, many of the greatest millionaires of the day decided to polish their names a little by buying a Senate seat. Leland Stanford of California, James G. Fair of Nevada, John Fairfield Dryden of New Jersey, Philetus Sawyer of Wisconsin, and Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, the "Boss of America", called the Senate home for at least a few years.

From 1871 to 1898, the Senate approved not a single treaty. The Senate scuttled a long series of reciprocal trade agreements, blocked deals to annex Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands, defeated an arbitration deal with Great Britain, and forced the renegotiation of the pact to build the Panama Canal. Finally, in 1898, the Senate nearly refused to ratify the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War. Surely other accords never made it past the negotiating table due to fears of Senate recalcitrance.

The Senate in the post-Civil War years consistently blocked labor reforms and tariff-reductions. The money supply was kept tight. "The legislative pages of [the Gilded Age]," Robert Caro wrote in Master of the Senate "are sparse indeed if one searches them for laws that would help farmers, labor, minorities, consumers, or the crowded poor in the wretched slums of the great new cities..."

In creating a Senate for the new nation, its Founding Fathers had tried to create within the government an institution that would speak for the educated, the well-born, the well-to-do, that would protect the rights of property, that would not function as an embodiment of the people’s will but would stand--‘firmly’–-as a great bulwark against that will. They had succeeded.

Henry Adams, described America thusly "of the people, by the people, and for the Senate." (From the Old Diplomacy to the New, pg 4).

The Senate underwent several significant changes during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.

One change implemented during Wilson’s presidency was the limitation of the filibuster with the cloture vote.

Another change implemented during Wilson’s presidency was the creation of the post of Senate Majority Leader. Before this time, a “senate leader” was usually a committee chairman, or a person of great eloquence, seniority, or wealth, such as Daniel Webster and Nelson Aldrich. However, despite this new, formal leadership structure, the Senate leader initially had virtually no power, other have priority of recognition from the presiding officer. Since the Democrats were fatally divided into northern liberal and southern conservative blocs, the Democratic leader had even less power than his title suggested.

[Joseph T. Robinson]] of Arkansas, the Democratic leader for many years, saw it as his responsibility not to lead the Democrats, but to work the Senate for the president’s benefit, no matter who the president was. When Coolidge and Hoover were president, he passed Republican legislation took orders from them. Robinson helped end government operation of Muscle Shoals, helped pass the Hoover Tariff, and stymied a Senate investigation of the Power Trust. Robinson switched his own position on a drought relief program for farmers when Hoover made a proposal for a more modest measure. Alben Barkley called Robinson’s cave-in “the most humiliating spectacle that could be brought about in an intelligent legislative body.”

When Franklin Roosevelt became president, Robinson followed the new president as loyally as he had followed Coolidge and Hoover. Robinson passed bills in the Hundred Days so quickly that Will Rogers joked “Congress doesn’t pass legislation any more, they just wave at the bills as they go by.” (Master of the Senate, 354-5)

Another change that occurred during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson was the limitation of the filibuster. The filibuster was first used in the early Republic, but it was seldom used for most of the 19th century. The filibuster was finally limited as a response to the filibuster of the arming of merchant ships in World War I. At that time, the public, the House, the great majority of the Senate, and the president wanted merchant ships armed, but less than twenty Senators, led by William Jennings Bryan fought to keep our ships unarmed. Wilson denounced the group as a “group of willful men.”

Gradually, Senate leaders acquired more powers. By the 1940’s, it was the custom for the Senate leader to be the only person with the power to call bills off the calendar. During Lyndon Baines Johnson’s tenure as Senate leader, the leader gained new powers over committee assignments.

In 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first elected female senator (Rebecca Latimer Felton had become the first woman to serve as a senator in 1922 due to the death of Senator Thomas E. Watson).

The first session of Senate to be open to the public was held on February 11, 1794 and on February 27, 1986 the Senate allowed its debates to be televised on a trial basis (which was later made permanent).

On February 3, 2004, preliminary tests showed the presence of ricin in an office mailroom. Fears of a domestic terror incident similar to the 2001 Anthrax attacks have been raised. There is a small probability that the powder that was found was not ricin, but a form of laxative, also based on Castor bean.

See also

External links