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Legislature, Structure of the Senate

tie votes, senior senator, Senate leadership, majority party, filibuster

The Senate is composed of 100 members—two each from the 50 states—who serve six-year terms. The procedures and workings of the Senate are similar to those of the House, though because of its smaller membership there are fewer committees and subcommittees. The most important committees of the Senate are the Appropriations, Budget, Finance, Foreign Relations, and Judiciary committees.

The Founders designed the Senate to be a deliberative national body, more stable and insulated from popular sentiment than the House. That is why senators serve six-year terms (as opposed to the two-year terms of the House) and why, until the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were elected by the state legislatures rather than directly by the people. The Founders also designed the Senate to protect the interests of the states, especially states with small populations, by giving each state the same number of representatives in the Senate. In the House, states with larger populations have more representatives. In addition, unlike the House, the Senate does not limit the amount of debate on any bill or for any one senator. This privilege allows Senators to filibuster, or make unlimited speeches, to block action on a bill or to delay a vote for an extended period of time. A filibuster can be ended only through a vote of 60 senators.

The vice president of the United States serves as the president of the Senate. One of the few designated duties of the vice president is to break tie votes in the Senate. However, because the vice president has such a limited role in the Senate, he or she rarely attends its sessions. The Senate selects a president pro tempore (temporary president), who is usually the senior senator of the majority party. He or she supervises the Senate most of the time.

Besides the vice president, the leadership in the Senate consists of majority and minority leaders, who schedule bills for consideration, and whips, who gather information about their colleagues’ views on specific bills. The policy committee, which advises the Senate leadership on legislative priorities, is also influential in the workings of the Senate.

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