What Is the Senate?

United States Senate
The United States Senate is the upper chamber of Congress.
Last modified: December 30, 2022

The United States Senate is the upper chamber of the United States Congress. It is a legislative body of 100 members, with two from each state.

The Senate’s duties include voting to confirm or deny acts of Congress. The Senate works alongside the House of Representatives in the United States Congress to vote on various bills. A bill must pass both the Senate and House before becoming law.

The Senate is the legislative branch of the federal government and one of three branches in all. The others are the executive branch and judicial branch.

What Can Senators Do?

Senators who serve in the United States Senate hold various powers:

  • Senators vote on bills, resolutions, and other potential laws.
  • The Senate can nominate Supreme Court Justices, ambassadors, and other officers.
  • The Senate can produce a filibuster to delay the debate of a bill or block possible legislation. 60 members of the Senate must vote to end a debate.
  • Senators can initiate investigations into various events. Some of the investigations the Senate has commenced include the Watergate scandal, corruption in the cotton industry, and even the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
Watergate Hotel
The Senate held an investigation into the Watergate scandal.
  • In conjunction with the House of Representatives, the Senate has the direct power to declare war. This power has not been used since the Second World War.
  • Senators can also vote to impeach a government official. The Senate can conduct an impeachment trial and will vote to determine if the impeached person should be convicted. This measure has been used multiple times, including on three presidents on four separate occasions.

How Many Senators Are Necessary To Pass a Bill or Another Measure?

The Senate and House of Representatives must both agree to pass a bill or act upon another measure before it can go forward. But the number of senators needed to pass a bill will vary.

House of Representatives
House of Representatives in 1906.

In most cases, the Senate will agree on a bill if at least half its members approve it. For cases where there is a 50-50 tie, the Vice President will cast the tie-breaking vote.

A two-thirds majority is necessary for some situations, including:

  • To expel a senator.
  • To override a presidential veto.
  • To propose a Constitutional Amendment that the states could ratify.
  • To ratify a treaty.
  • To convict someone who has been impeached.
18th Amendment to United States Constitution
A two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate is required for a proposed Constitutional Amendment to be sent to the states for ratification.

Who Leads the Senate?

The Senate is led by the majority and minority leaders who will represent their parties. The majority leader has the priority to speak on the Senate floor, giving that person the most power.

The majority leader represents whatever party has the most seats in the Senate. In 2022, the Democrats had a majority, leaving New York Democrat Chuck Schumer as the majority leader. 

Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell was the minority leader in 2022, but he was the majority leader from 2015 to 2021 when the Republicans had control.

Artist's rendition of the Senate Chamber
Senate Chamber in the 1920s.

The assistant majority and minority leaders are called whips and will gather votes from members of their party. The whip can be the acting floor leader in cases where the majority or minority leader isn’t present. 

For 2022, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin was the majority whip, while South Dakota Republican John Thune was the minority whip.

How Was the Senate Formed?

The Senate was formed as part of the United States Constitution. The desire was to create a legislative branch with a bicameral legislature in the federal government to represent the people. 

One chamber would equally represent people, with each state having representation. The other chamber would provide equal representation to each state regardless of population.

United States Senate office building
United States Senate office building (1910).

The Connecticut Compromise of 1787 led to the creation of the Senate and House. The Senate would be the chamber of the United States Congress that allows for governmental representation for all states regardless of population. At the same time, the House would offer representation based on state population. 

The Connecticut Compromise was issued to ensure smaller and less-populated states would continue to have fair representation in the Senate and the legislative process. At the same time, the House would allow for varying amounts of representatives by state population.

Who Determines Who Enters the Senate?

The American people are responsible for voting candidates into the Senate, but it wasn’t always like this. Originally, state legislatures would vote to determine which two people would serve as senators.

But the Seventeenth Amendment gave the power to elect senators to American voters. The Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913.

How Long Do Senators Serve?

A senator serves a six-year term and is up for reelection after that point.

Senator William Webb
Senator William Webb served just 39 days in the Senate in 1913, following the death of Senator Robert Love, and delivered one speech.

There are no limits to how many terms a senator can serve. West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd was the longest-serving senator in history, as he served for 51 years from 1959 until he died in 2010.

Three Classes of Senators

The Senate divides its senators into three classes for electoral purposes. About a third of all senate seats will be up for election every two years, with elections being on even-numbered years. 

The measure ensures the Senate continues functioning. This rule contrasts with the House of Representatives, where all of its members are up for election every even-numbered year.

Senator Diane Feinstein
Senator Diane Feinstein was first elected to the Senate as a representative for California in 1992.

For example, in 2022, the 34 seats in Class III were up for election, while the 33 seats in Class I will be up for election in 2024. The other 33 seats in Class II will be up for election in 2026.

Each state has senators in two different classes. For instance, Michigan and Minnesota have their senators in Classes I and II, while Illinois, North Carolina, and Georgia have their senators in Classes II and III.

Who Can Join the Senate?

The terms for who can be elected to the Senate are as follows. These rules were established during the 1787 Constitutional Convention:

  • The candidate must be at least 30 years of age.
  • The candidate must also have been a United States citizen for at least nine years.
  • The person must also be a resident of the state one will represent.
President Joe Biden
Joe Biden was elected to the Senate from Delaware at age 29 but was 30 years old when sworn into office in 1973.

There had never been any rules prohibiting women from running for Senate, but they rarely ran before the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920.

Arkansas Democrat Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the Senate in 1931. Georgia Democrat Rebecca Felton technically came first, as she served for a day in 1922 after being appointed to the Senate when Senator Thomas E. Watson died unexpectedly.

Can a Senator Reenter the Senate?

A senator who leaves the Senate following an election or any other issue can return to the Senate through another election. 

For instance, Wyoming Republican Francis Warren served in the Senate from 1890 to 1893 and left to resume his business endeavors. 

He returned to the Senate after being elected again in 1895 and would remain until his death in 1929.

Have Any Senators Been Expelled?

A Senator can be expelled if at least two-thirds of senators vote to do this. Twenty senators have been expelled, all but three of them being expelled in 1861 because they supported the Confederate States of America. 

The most recent senator to be expelled was Ohio Democrat Jim Traficant, who was convicted of multiple counts of tax evasion and bribery.

When Does the New Senate Term Start?

The new Senate and Congressional term starts at noon Eastern Time on January 3 every odd-numbered year. Congress can designate a different date as necessary. The 118th Congressional Congress will start on January 3, 2023, and end on January 3, 2025.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *