Study Notes

The Senate

AQA, Edexcel, OCR

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

The Senate is the upper chamber in the United States Congress. It has 100 directly elected members. Senators used to be indirectly election prior to 1914. Elections are held every two years with one third of the Senate being eligible for re-election each time. Terms of office as a result are 6 years in length and are renewable indefinitely.


In the Senate there are 100 directly elected members who represent the States individually. Each state has two senators to represent it. This can mean that for some states that they have more Senators than they do members of the House of Representatives. This is the case for Alaska, Delaware, Montana and North Dakota to name but a few. As every state gets two senators the only way the number of Senators would change is for a new state to be admitted to the Union or should one leave the Union.

Within the Senate, Senators are ranked according to seniority, depending on how long they have served for. This means all the Senators are numbered from 1-100. Within states, the Senators are also distinguished between using the terms Senior and Junior. The Junior Senators are the ones who have been most recently elected.


Below are the demographics for Senate in the 114th Congress, it covers average age, gender breakdown, religion, education and more. It would be useful if you remembered some of these to recall during exams.

Becoming a Senator

In order to become a Senator, you need to meet the qualifications laid down by the US Constitution. Firstly, all Senators must have been a US Citizen for 9 years. This doesn’t mean that all Senators must be born in the United States. In addition to this all Senators must be a resident in the state they either wish to represent or represent. Finally, on top of those all candidates must be at least 30 years old. In order to run, certainly within the party system, you must first secure the nomination from your party. This may require you to win a Primary election first. This can still happen to incumbent Senators. After you have been selected you then must win the election to represent your state.


The Constitution of the United States states that the Vice President is the President of the Senate and thus the Presiding Officer of the Senate. However, in practice the Senate chooses its own Presiding Officer in the form of the President pro Tempore. This is mainly a ceremonial position and the President Pro Tempore delegates the position of Presiding Officer to other Senators in order to give them more experience.

The real leadership within the Senate lies with the Majority Leader who will decide which bills come to the floor of the Senate. In this way, the Majority Leaders are more significant in the Senate than they are in the House of Representatives.

As in the House of Representatives, there are Whips however in the Senate the power of the Whips is reduced due to collegiate nature of the chamber.

Powers of the Senate

  • Confirm Presidential appointments
  • Ratify Treaties
  • Try the accused in cases of impeachment
  • Elect the Vice President in the case of Electoral College deadlock

The Filibuster

The Senate is also unique in US Politics by having the power of unlimited debate. However, whilst this can be a good thing, it can be used to delay legislation and for political purposes. In order to disrupt the passage of legislation or appointments, Senators can filibuster a bill. This can be done by an individual or a group of Senators whereby they attempt to talk a bill to death. If a Senator can keep talking without stopping or leaving for the toilet, then they could kill of a bill. Notable filibusters have included Senator Strom Thurmond in 1957, he filibustered a Civil Rights Bill for 24 hours 18 minutes, or more recently Senator Rand Paul filibustering the appointment of John Brennen as CIA Director at 12hrs 52mins. Individual filibusters are normally unsuccessful; but, group filibusters can be more successful. However, if three fifths of the Senate vote to end a filibuster they can. This is known as a cloture motion.

Individual filibusters are now normally reserved for Senators who wish to engage in political point scoring. However, the filibuster is still used but in a different way. If the party in the majority has a majority that is less than 3/5 namely 60 seats, then the opposing party can threaten to filibuster on mass without having to engage in the talking. The threat of the filibuster is sometimes enough to delay legislation. A majority of 60 or more is said to be a Filibuster Proof Majority

Further Reading & Study

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