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.
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 official 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. Two presidents, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been tried; both were acquitted.
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 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;
- armed services;
- banking, housing and urban affairs;
- commerce, science and transportation;
- energy and natural resources;
- environment and public works;
- foreign relations;
- health, education, labor and pensions;
- homeland security and governmental affairs;
- 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.
Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer who also works as a copy editor for the Camden Courier-Post. She formerly worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she wrote about books, religion, sports, music, films and restaurants.