Study Guide

Legislative Branch (Congress) - Senate

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  • Senate is smaller and more prestigious than the House, with 100 members serving six-year terms
  • Senate rules and tradition put no time limit on debate; Senate calls itself "the world's greatest deliberative body"
  • Senate has unique powers to confirm executive appointments and ratify treaties

The only legislative club in America more exclusive than the House of Representatives is the Senate. Home to only 100 members, each of them serving lengthy six-year terms, the Senate is usually considered to be the more elite and prestigious of the two houses of Congress. (Lots of members of the House hope to eventually "move up" to the Senate; no senators hope to move into the House.) Formally, the Constitution's requirements for senators differ only slightly from those for House members; they have to be at least 30 years old rather than 25 and they have to have held American citizenship for at least nine years rather than seven. But in practice, senators tend to be not only older, but also wealthier, more experienced, and more powerful than their colleagues in the House.

Beyond these differences in prestige and membership, the Senate differs from the House mainly in the way it conducts business. The Constitution grants both houses of Congress the power to make their own rules for parliamentary procedure. One of the Senate's most cherished rules is a tradition to allow unlimited debate; that is, in the Senate (unlike in the House), there is no time limit imposed on discussion of legislation. Senators can debate a bill from here to eternity if they feel like it. This tradition of unlimited debate is one of the main reasons why the Senate likes to call itself "the world's greatest deliberative body."

In most of its functions, the Senate mirrors the House rather closely. Both houses have to pass any bill for it to become law. But the Constitution does grant a few special powers solely to one chamber of Congress or the other. The House, for example, must be the original source of any and all legislation related to spending public moneys. And only the House has the power to impeach the president or any other executive officer of the government. (The Senate then serves as judge and jury in all impeachment cases brought by the House.) The Senate, for its part, has the unique responsibility to ratify all treaties and confirm all presidential appointments of judges and executive officials.

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