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How Our Laws Are Made

XIV. Senate Action


The Parliamentarian, in the name of the Vice President, as the President of the Senate, refers the engrossed bill to the appropriate standing committee of the Senate in conformity with the rules of the Senate. The bill is reprinted immediately and copies are made available in the document rooms of both Houses. This printing is known as the ‘‘Act print’’ or the ‘‘Senate referred print.’’




Senate committees give the bill the same detailed consideration as it received in the House and may report it with or without amendment. A committee member who wishes to express an individual view or a group of Members who wish to file a minority report may do so by giving notice, at the time of the approval of a report on the measure, of an intention to file supplemental, minority, or additional views. These views may be filed within three days with the clerk of the committee and become a part of the report. When a committee reports a bill, it is reprinted with the committee amendments indicated by showing new matter in italics and deleted matter in line-through type. The calendar number and report number are indicated on the first and back pages, together with the name of the Senator making the report. If the committee chooses to file a report to accompany the bill, it is printed at this time, along with any minority or individual views.


All committee meetings, including those to conduct hearings, must be open to the public. However, a majority of the members of a committee or subcommittee may, after discussion in closed session, vote in open session to close a meeting or series of meetings on the same subject for no longer than 14 days if it is determined that the matters to be discussed or testimony to be taken will disclose matters necessary to be kept secret in the interests of national defense or the confidential conduct of the foreign relations of the United States; will relate solely to internal committee staff management or procedure; will tend to charge an individual with a crime or misconduct, to disgrace or injure the professional standing of an individual, or otherwise to expose an individual to public contempt, or will represent a clearly unwarranted invasion of the privacy of an individual; will disclose law enforcement information that is required to be kept secret; will disclose certain information regarding certain trade secrets; or may disclose matters required to be kept confidential under other provisions of law or government regulation.




The rules of procedure in the Senate differ to a large extent from those in the House. The Senate relies heavily on the practice of obtaining unanimous consent for actions to be taken. For example, at the time that a bill is reported, the Majority Leader may ask unanimous consent for the immediate consideration of the bill. If the bill is of a noncontroversial nature and there is no objection, the Senate may pass the bill with little or no debate and with only a brief explanation of its purpose and effect. If there is any objection, the report must lie over one legislative day and the bill is placed on the calendar.


Measures reported by standing committees of the Senate may not be considered unless the report of that committee has been available to Senate Members for at least two days (excluding Sundays and legal holidays) prior to consideration of the measure in the Senate. This requirement may be waived by agreement of the Majority and Minority leaders and does not apply in certain emergency situations or where no report has been submitted on the measure.


In the Senate, measures are brought up for consideration by a simple unanimous consent request, by a complex unanimous consent agreement, or by a motion to proceed to the consideration of a measure on the calendar. A unanimous consent agreement, sometimes referred to as a ‘‘time agreement’’, makes the consideration of a measure in order and often limits the amount of debate that will take place on the measure and lists the amendments that will be considered. The offering of a unanimous consent request to consider a measure or the offering of a motion to proceed to the consideration of a measure is reserved, by tradition, to the Majority Leader. Usually, a motion to consider a measure on the calendar is made only when unanimous consent to consider the measure cannot be obtained.


There are two calendars in the Senate, the Calendar of Business and the Executive Calendar. All legislation is placed on the Calendar of Business and treaties and nominations are placed on the Executive Calendar. Unlike the House, there is no differentiation on the Calendar of Business between the treatment of: (1) bills raising revenue, general appropriation bills, and bills of a public character appropriating money or property; and (2) other bills of a public character not appropriating money or property.


The rules of the Senate provide that at the conclusion of the morning business for each ‘‘legislative day’’ the Senate proceeds to the consideration of the calendar. In the Senate, the term ‘‘legislative day’’ means the period of time from when the Senate adjourns until the next time the Senate adjourns. Because the Senate often ‘‘recesses’’ rather than ‘‘adjourns’’ at the end of a daily session, the legislative day usually does not correspond to the 24-hour period comprising a calendar day. Thus, a legislative day may cover a long period of time—from days to weeks, or even months. Because of this and the modern practice of waiving the call of the calendar by unanimous consent at the start of a new legislative day, it is rare to have a call of the calendar. When the calendar is called, bills that are not objected to are taken up in their order, and each Senator is entitled to speak once and for five minutes only on any question. Objection may be interposed at any stage of the proceedings, but on motion the Senate may continue consideration after the call of the calendar is completed, and the limitations on debate then do not apply.


On any day (other than a Monday that begins a new legislative day), following the announcement of the close of morning business, any Senator, usually the Majority Leader, obtaining recognition may move to take up any bill out of its regular order on the calendar. The five-minute limitation on debate does not apply to the consideration of a bill taken up in this manner, and debate may continue until the hour when the Presiding Officer of the Senate ‘‘lays down’’ the unfinished business of the day. At that point consideration of the bill is discontinued and the measure reverts back to the Calendar of Business and may again be called up at another time under the same conditions.


When a bill has been objected to and passed over on the call of the calendar it is not necessarily lost. The Majority Leader, after consulting the Minority Leader, determines the time at which the bill will be considered. At that time, a motion is made to consider the bill. The motion is debatable if made after the morning hour. When a Senator is recognized by the Presiding Officer, the Senator may speak for as long as the Senator wishes and loses the floor only when the Senator yields it or takes certain parliamentary actions that forfeit the Senator’s right to the floor. However, a Senator may not speak more than twice on any one question in debate on the same legislative day without leave of the Senate. Debate ends when a Senator yields the floor and no other Senator seeks recognition, or when a unanimous consent agreement limiting the time of debate dictates that debate is concluded.


On occasion, Senators opposed to a measure may extend debate by making lengthy speeches or a number of speeches at various stages of consideration intended to prevent or defeat action on the measure. This is the tactic known as ‘‘filibustering.’’ Debate may be closed, however, if 16 Senators sign a motion to that effect and the motion is carried by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn. Such a motion is voted on one hour after the Senate convenes, following a quorum call on the next day after a day of session has intervened. This procedure is called ‘‘invoking cloture.’’ In 1986, the Senate amended its rules to limit ‘‘post-cloture’’ consideration to 30 hours. ‘‘Post-cloture,’’ a Senator may speak for not more than one hour and may yield all or a part of that time to the majority or minority floor managers of the bill under consideration or to the Majority or Minority leader. The Senate may increase the time for ‘‘post-cloture’’ debate by a vote of three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn. After the time for debate has expired, the Senate may consider only amendments actually pending before voting on the bill.


While a measure is being considered it is subject to amendment and each amendment, including those proposed by the committee that reported the bill, is considered separately. Generally, there is no requirement that proposed amendments be germane to the subject matter of the bill except in the case of general appropriation bills or where ‘‘cloture’’ has been invoked. Under the rules, a ‘‘rider’’, an amendment proposing substantive legislation to an appropriation bill, is prohibited. However, this prohibition may be suspended by two-thirds vote on a motion to permit consideration of such an amendment on one day’s notice in writing. Debate must be germane during the first three hours after business is laid down unless determined to the contrary by unanimous consent or on motion without debate.


After final action on the amendments the bill is ready for engrossment and the third reading, which is by title only. The Presiding Officer then puts the question on the passage and a voice vote is usually taken although a yea-and-nay vote is in order if demanded by one-fifth of the Senators present. A simple majority is necessary for passage. Before an amended measure is cleared for its return to the House of Representatives, or an unamended measure is cleared for enrollment, a Senator who voted with the prevailing side, or who abstained from voting, may make a motion within the next two days to reconsider the action. If the measure was passed without a recorded vote, any Senator may make the motion to reconsider. That motion is usually tabled and its tabling constitutes a final determination. If, however, the motion is granted, the Senate by majority vote may either affirm its action, which then becomes final, or reverse it.


The original engrossed House bill, together with the engrossed Senate amendments, if any, or the original engrossed Senate bill, as the case may be, is then returned to the House with a message stating the action taken by the Senate. Where the Senate has adopted amendments, the message requests that the House concur in them.


For a more detailed discussion of Senate procedure, see Enactment of a Law, by Robert B. Dove, former Parliamentarian of the Senate.

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