How Congress Works: Making Laws in the US Senate
Tuesday, October 4, 2005 - By ALL

The Constitution in Article I, Section I places all legislative powers in a Congress of the United States, which consists of a Senate and House of Representatives. The Constitution also requires that each State have two Senators, and that each Senator must be at least 30 years old, a US citizen for at least 9 years, and, when elected, be a resident of the State for which the Senator is chosen. Senators serving a full term are elected for 6 years.


Legislative measures take two forms, i.e., they are either bills or resolutions. Constitutional Amendments are always styled Joint Resolutions, although a measure introduced as a bill may also be introduced as a House or Senate Joint Resolution. Bills are given a number in the order in which they are introduced. With each new Congress, bills start their numbering in sequence starting with number 1. Senate bills have the designation S. before each number. A Senate Joint Resolution would be, for example, S. J. Res. ___. House bills are also sequentially numbered and prefaced by "H.R."

All bills and joint resolution which have passed both the House and Senate proposing changes in general law must pass each body in identical form and then are sent to the President for his approval or rejection by veto. Joint Resolutions proposing Constitutional Amendments are not sent to the President for his approval or disapproval. Constitutional Amendments must pass both houses in identical form and by at least a two-thirds majority. Proposed Constitutional Amendments are sent to the Administrator of the federal General Services Administration, who then sends the proposed Constitutional Amendments to the various States for ratification which takes the consent of at least three-fourths of the States.

Since the President cannot introduce bills, his legislative proposals are introduced by the chairmen of the various House or Senate legislative committees. The words "by request" may be affixed to the bill after the chief patron's name to indicate that the chief patron does not necessarily support the bill, but is introducing it as a courtesy, or by request. A Senator or Congressman can also introduce bills "by request" for persons other than the President.

Ideas for legislation can come from private citizens or organizations, federal or state agencies, state legislatures, be the result of campaign promises, or be the result of the individual Congressman or Senator's own thinking. But only a Congressman may introduce a bill in the House of Representatives, and only a Senator may introduce legislation in the Senate. When bills are introduced they are referred or sent to the standing legislative committee(s) which have jurisdiction over the subject matter.


There are two meanings of the word "day." There is the regular calendar day of 24 hours, and there is a "legislative day" which runs from one Senate adjournment to another. A single legislative day may take up a large amount of real time from days, weeks or even months. The refusal to adjourn has parliamentary effects on the introduction of legislation, what may be considered and other matters.

For example, Senate Rule XIX provides that: "no Senator shall speak more than twice upon any one question in debate on the same legislative day ... ." Senate rules also forbid motions "to suspend, modify or amend any rule ... except on one day's notice in writing... ."


Any Senator may introduce a bill, or be a co-patron on a bill introduced by another Senator. There can only be one chief patron for a bill.

As is the House practice, Senators can introduce bills "by request," which means that the Senator has extended a courtesy to the person or group requesting the bill's introduction. The Senator may or may not favor the bill, but introduces it so that other Senators may consider it. Committee Chairmen who are of a different political party often introduce the President's bills "by request."


The Senate operates under the assumption that a quorum is present until the Presiding officer is questioned by a Senator who is recognized by the chair and is asked whether a quorum is actually present. If the Presiding officer announces that no quorum is present after observing the chamber, he then directs that a call of the roll take place without debate and continues it until a quorum is determined to be present by Senators personally answering the quorum call on the floor of the Senate. The Senate continues to operate until the next quorum call which may be requested only if legislative business intervenes between the first quorum call and a request for the succeeding one.

As in the House, there are three ways of voting: voice vote, division vote and roll call vote. A roll call vote may be demanded by 1/5th of the Senators present. However, Senators do not have electronic voting cards like Congressmen do. Instead, when a roll call vote is ordered the names of Senators are called alphabetically and each Senator answers the call either yea or nay. Senators may change their vote at any time before the final vote is announced. Votes on veto overrides are automatically roll call votes.

If a Senator knows he will be absent for a vote, and another Senator is also going to be absent they may decide to announce that they are "paired" on the vote. That is, each Senator, if present, would have cast his vote so as to cancel out the other Senator, hence the designation, "paired." Under such circumstances, if less that a quorum actually votes, and the number of "pairs" added to the number of Senators actually voting do not add up to a quorum, then a quorum call is automatic.


Senate committees are formed by the entire Senate at the beginning of each Congress, and may operate until their successors are appointed. Currently there are 16 standing or legislative committees that have the power to report bills to the entire Senate. The Chairman of each committee is a member of the majority political party, and is usually the Senator with the most seniority. Senate committees, like House ones, usually have subcommittees. The rules of Senate committees have to be consistent with the Rules of the Senate. The procedures for the introduction of bills, holding hearings and securing witnesses, having legislative markups, securing agency comment and other committee operations is similar to the House. At a committee "mark up" session, amendments can be added to bills which can (a) insert language, (b) strike language, (c) strike part of the bill's language and insert new language, or (d) strike the entire text of a bill and insert a complete new bill or substitute. Bills that are favorably voted on by a committee are accompanied by a report as in the House. Senate committees, like House committees, are not required to take action on all bills referred to them. As in the House, a bill may be discharged from a committee, though this is very rare.


The Senate's Majority and Minority Leaders operate as the House Rules Committee does by scheduling legislation. And for controversial measures they propose unanimous consent agreements on the consideration of bills, the offering of amendments, length of debate and the like. However, any bill placed on the Senate Calendar of Business may be brought up by a simple majority vote if they have been on the Calendar for one legislative day, but here debate is unlimited by the initial agreement.

Most measures are passed either on the call of the Calendar of Business or by unanimous consent procedure. When bills are not considered under time agreements, the only way to cut off debate is to invoke cloture, which is an agreement to end debate with no more than one hour allotted for each Senator. It takes 3/5th of the Senate to end debate under Rule XXII.

Bills may be first amended on the Senate floor by the committee reporting the bill, and then amended by individual Senators. Committee amendments, other than an amendment that is a complete substitute for the previous bill, may also be amended. Amendments to Appropriations bills must be germane to the subject matter in the bill, as well as when the Senate invokes cloture on other bills. Otherwise, Senators may offer floor amendments that are not related to the bill at hand.

Interestingly, a vote on final passage may not really be a vote on final passage. This is so because when there is a roll call vote on final passage of a bill, any Senator who voted with the prevailing or winning side or who did not vote, may make a motion to reconsider the vote if he makes that motion on the same calendar day as the vote on passage or within the next two days the Senate is actually in session. When a vote on final passage occurs on a voice vote or by a division vote, any Senator may demand a reconsideration vote within the same time constraints. Only one motion to reconsider may be made. No bills may be sent to the House while a motion to reconsider is pending or not yet acted upon.


While Congress is in session, the President, has 10 days (Sundays excepted) after a bill has been given or presented to him in which to sign it or to veto it. If he signs it the bill becomes effective on the date specified in the bill. If the President disapproves or vetoes it is returned to either the House or Senate whichever originated the bill, with the date of the veto in his message (and the hour of his disapproval if it is a revenue bill being vetoed.). If the President does not want to sign the bill, but he does not want to veto it either, the measure will become law if he fails to act within 10 days of it being presented to him. A "pocket veto" kills a bill and occurs when a bill is given to the President and he does nothing with it and the Congress has adjourned within the ten day time period of the bill's presentment to the President. Otherwise when Congress is in session, the Congress may override a President's veto if 2/3 of the members vote to override a bill returned to the Congress.


The non-legislative or executive business of the Senate is comprised of treaties and nominations the President submits to the Senate for its "advice and consent." Senate Committees handle executive business just as they do legislative business according to the particular jurisdiction they have. For example nominations for Ambassadors and recommendations for Treaties are sent to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The Agriculture Committee would receive nominations for the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. The Senate Judiciary Committee would get Presidential nominations to federal courts including the US Supreme Court. Public hearings on such nominations may be held. When committees act favorably on nominations or treaties assigned to them, the committee's recommendations or report is placed on the Senate's Executive Calendar, not the Senate's regular Calendar of Business, to which legislation is assigned.

Presidential nominations must be approved by a majority of the Senate. If a nomination is confirmed by a majority of the Senate, a Resolution of Confirmation is sent to the President and the appointment then awaits approval by Presidential signature. The President may make temporary appointments to positions that would normally require the "advice and consent" of the Senate during recesses of the Senate. However, any such nominations expire at the end of the next Congressional session.

Treaties are a type of legislative agreements with other countries, and as such are subject to amendment like other legislative matters as long as they are being debated and considered on second reading by the Senate. The Senate can place conditions on the operation of proposed treaties, and these are placed in the committee=s report on the treaty. Also, reservations may be included in any proposal of ratification that modify or limit the effect of the treaty's obligations on the part of the United States to other countries signing the treaty. However, once a resolution of ratification has been proposed the entire treaty must be approved or rejected in its entirety, except that if unanimous consent is granted an amendment may be offered. Treaties must be approved by a majority vote.

In a technical sense the Constitution actually provides only for the President to ratify a treaty. However, he can only do so after receiving the advice and consent of the Senate as is spelled out in the Senate's Resolution of Ratification. As with his legislative veto power, the President does not have to proceed with the ratification of a treaty approved by the Senate, but he probably would since he submitted it to the Senate in the first place. However, once the President signs the Senate-approved treaty, the treaty is in effect. (A President could refuse to submit a treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent.) Treaties become the pending business before the Senate from the time when a President submits them to the Senate until the Senate disposes of them which can and has taken decades.


* = Required Fields
    • Your Name*
    • Your Email Address*
    • Comment*
    • Enter the code*