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The Senate: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Daiquiri Steele
In this lesson, we will explore the structure and powers of the U.S. Senate. Learn the eligibility requirements to run for the Senate, what types of powers the Senate possesses, and the types of committees the Senate is comprised of.

What is the Senate?

In 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution created a bicameral legislature, a form of government that consists of two bodies. The first is the U.S. House of Representatives, and the second is the U.S. Senate.

The Senate is comprised of 100 senators - two from each state. Senators are elected by the citizens of their respective states. Originally, senators were chosen by the state legislatures; however, in 1913, the 17th Amendment was passed and mandated that senators be elected. Each senator serves a six-year term, after which, he or she may run for re-election. To be eligible to be a senator, a person must be at least 30 years old, have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and be a resident of the state they will represent if elected.

Senate Leadership

The vice president of the United States is the president of the Senate; however, the vice president does not get to vote on legislation unless the Senate vote results in a tie. For this reason, the vice president rarely appears in the Senate. The Senate also has a president pro tempore. This person is usually the longest serving senator from among the political party holding the majority of the Senate seats. The president pro tempore position is mostly an honorary one. On most days, the Senate is actually presided over by senators from the majority party.

The U.S. Senate Floor
Picture of the U.S. Senate Floor

Powers of the Senate

Some of the major powers of the Senate include reviewing presidential nominations, conducting impeachment trials, and approving treaties. The U.S. Constitution gives the President of the United States the authority to appoint U.S. Supreme Court judges, ambassadors, and other officers. The Senate is charged with the responsibility of reviewing presidential nominees; the Senate can either approve or reject them. Additionally, the Senate has impeachment powers. Impeachment is the process by which a government official is charged with misconduct. The House of Representatives acts as a prosecutor with respect to impeachment, though the trials are actually held in the Senate, and senators effectively serve jury members for impeachment trials. Two-thirds of the senators must vote 'guilty' in order for the official to be removed from office. Additionally, the Senate has the power to review, and either approve or reject, treaties.

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