The Senate is a group of 100 elected political leaders who make and approve new laws. The Senate and the House of Representatives together make up the U.S. Congress.
You’ll also hear the Senate called a “legislative body” and “one half of the bicameral legislature.” “Legislative” means “makes laws,” and “bicameral” refers to Congress having 2 branches — the Senate and the House.
Each state elects 2 Senators. They’re elected to 6 years terms. The terms are staggered: Every 2 years, we elect 1/3rd of the Senate.
Senators are elected by popular vote (i.e. the person who gets the most votes wins the election). This wasn’t always true, though. It used to be that state governments picked Senators for their states. This changed when the 17th Amendment was passed.
The fact that each state gets 2 Senators is an important part of how Congress works. This means that a state like Montana, population 1 million, has the same say as Texas, population 28 million. This isn’t true in the House, where Montana has 1 Representative and Texas has 36. But by having the same number of Senators, each state gets to have a voice in lawmaking.
Washington, D.C. and U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, don’t have Senators.
What does the Senate do?
The Senate’s main job, along with the House of Representatives, is to make laws. That said, the Senate does have some special powers.
Probably most important is that it approves or rejects judges that the President nominates for the Supreme Court. It also approves or rejects nominees for the President’s cabinet, such as the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Education. (Want to know more? Here’s a lot of info on Senate nominations.)
The Senate also approves or rejects treaties with other countries, so it has more of a say in foreign policy than the House.
Last, the Senate plays an important role in the impeachment process. Impeachment is basically a trial for government official, such as a judge or the President, who’s been accused of corruption.
Here’s how impeachment works: First, the House of Representatives draws up and “articles of impeachment,” which say why an official is corrupt, and then votes on them. If more than half of the Representatives agree that the official is corrupt, impeachment moves to the Senate. If 2/3rds of the Senate votes for impeachment, the official is convicted and removed from office.
Important positions in the Senate (i.e. Who’s in charge here?)
The official leader of the Senate is the Vice President. When there’s a tie vote (50-50), the VP gets to cast the tie-breaking vote.
There’s also the Senate Pro Tempore, which is a pretty important position: 3rd in line to be President. (“Pro Tempore” means “for the time being.”) This person is usually the longest-serving member of whichever party has the most Senators.
A couple other positions matter too, though they’re not in the Constitution. First, there’s the majority and minority leaders. These are elected by the party with the most and the fewest seats respectively. They set the agendas for their parties: Decide what to fight for and what their goals are. For the majority leader, this usually means which laws the party will try to pass. For the minority leader, it means how they will stop laws from being passed.
There’s also majority and minority whips. The whip’s job is to make sure that everybody in the party votes the way they’re supposed to. This is called “whipping the votes.” Members don’t always vote with their parties, but whips try to get them to. Whips are also elected by their parties.
Senators make $174,000 per year. This sounds like a lot, but many people who work in private businesses in positions as high-ranking as U.S. Senator make a lot more. There are dozens of millionaire Senators, all of whom made their money elsewhere.