Ever since its creation by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Senate has been an object of controversy and reform.
The Senate in the U.S. Constitution
Article I of the United States Constitution establishes the Senate as one of two congressional chambers and stipulates that its membership is to consist of two senators from each state. This equal representation was the result of the Great Compromise that was reached during the Constitutional Convention and hearkens to the Congress created by the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, each state was represented by two to seven representatives, but during voting, representatives voted en banc. This gave unequal representation to smaller states, an advantage the smaller states were loath to relinquish.
One of the key elements of the Great Compromise to split the legislature into two halves: seats in the House of Representatives would be apportioned among the states according to their population, and the Senate would have equal representation.
Equal representation for each state is specifically protected by the Constitution. Article 5 prohibits any constitutional amendment that deprives any state of "equal suffrage" without its consent.
The Constitution dictates only a few qualifications for Senators. Specifically, Senators must be thirty years old before taking their seat; must have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years; and must be a resident of the state they represent.
Selection of Senators
Under the original Constitution, senators were appointed by their respective state legislatures, reflecting the divisions the Framers saw in the country: the House would represent the interests of the people; the Senate the interests of the states, and the executive the interests of the nation as a whole.
The Constitution requires that Senators be placed in one of three classes. The Senatorial term is six years, with one class being elected every two years. Though the Constitution does not dictate such, no two Senators from one state are ever in the same class.
Officers and leadership
Two Senate officers are designated in the Constitution: the President of the Senate and the President Pro Tempore. The former position is filled by the Vice President, who presides over Senate proceedings and casts the pivotal vote in the case of a tie. The President Pro Tempore presides over the Senate in the President of the Senate's absence. This position is customarily given to the most senior member of the chamber's majority party.
The Senate leadership includes several other positions that are not constitutionally mandated, including Senate Majority Leader, Senate Minority Leader, and whips, conference chairs, conference secretaries, and committee chairs for the majority and minority parties.
The Senate originally met in Federal Hall in New York City, then in Congress Hall in Philadelphia, finally moving to the newly established national capital in 1800. In 1859, a new wing of the Capitol Building was constructed to house the Senate, where it has met ever since.
The Senate shares most of the legislative powers with the House. Specifically, all bills passed by the House must be approved by the Senate, and vice versa, before the bill can be sent to the President for signature.
Any bill can start in either house of Congress, except spending bills, which must start in the House of Representatives.
The Senate has the additional constitutional responsibility of confirming most appointments made by the President. The Constitution allows the Congress to denote some offices as not requiring confirmation. Ambassadors, federal judges, and Supreme Court justices are specifically mentioned as requiring Senatorial "advice and consent."
The Senate also must approve, by two-thirds majority, any treaty negotiated by the President.
The Senate determines the guilt or innocence, and the action to be taken, on any individual impeached by the House. In any case where the President is tried, the Chief Justice of the United States sits as the presiding officer. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Senators present.
Filibuster and cloture
The Senate, unlike the House of Representatives, does not impose a pre-set limit on the amount of time any particular matter can be debated. Until 1917, there was no way to end a debate on an issue even if only one Senator wanted to keep speaking on it. Today, it requires a supermajority of 60% to end a debate (or "invoke cloture") and move to a vote. This rule enables 40 Senators to speak at great length (or "filibuster") in order to permanently delay (and thus defeat) a bill that has narrow majority support. President Lyndon Johnson broke the southern filibuster in 1964 to pass the Civil Rights bill by lining up Republican leader Everett Dirksen, who brought along most Republicans (except for Barry Goldwater). A major exception is that budget resolutions do not allow filibusters.