By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
After a bill gets passed through the House Chamber, it starts its approval journey in the Senate, and then moves on for the President’s consideration. Read to learn more about this exciting world of lawmaking.
Unanimous Consent in the Senate
Once the bill gets out of the House, it has to start all over again in the Senate. The process in the Senate is pretty similar to the House, with a few important exceptions.
Since the Senate is a smaller chamber, it does not delegate as much of its work to committees and sub-committees as the House does.
Instead of a Rules Committee that determines the rules of debate for the bill, the Senate uses a floor procedure known as unanimous consent. Unanimous consent means that the 100 senators in the Senate unanimously agree to the rules that govern the debate over the bill.
The managers write down the agreement and come to the chamber floor to make a motion that the agreement be adopted by unanimous consent.
At this point, any senator could object and stall the progress on the bill. If that happens, the bill managers need to renegotiate the debate rules for the bill. If there are no objections to the unanimous consent agreement, then the debate on the bill begins on the Senate floor.
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Versions of the Bill
If the Senate passes a bill, it does not automatically advance to the White House for the consideration of the president. The House and the Senate must have passed the exact same version of the bill.
In other words, if there are any differences at all in the bill the House passed versus the bill the Senate passed, it cannot advance to the president until those differences are reconciled.
Methods of Reconciliation
There are number of strategies that Congress uses to reconcile differences between bills that are passed in their respective chambers.
The most common method is for one chamber to simply agree to adopt the other chamber’s bill. Another possibility is that the chambers might engage in an amendment exchange, bouncing the bill back and forth between their chambers until both have passed exactly the same bill.
A third possibility is that the House and the Senate can agree to form a conference committee. A conference committee is a temporary joint committee, made up of Senators and House members who come together to negotiate a revised version of bills that both the chambers have passed.
Learn more about the functioning of Congress.
Conference Report: Unique Features
The conference committee members negotiate and produce what is known as a conference report. The conference report is really just a revised version of the bill that goes back to the floor of both chambers for approval.
When a conference report comes to the floor of the House and the Senate, it has special characteristics that make it different from any other bill.
For one thing, it cannot be filibustered in the Senate and it cannot be amended. The House and the Senate can have limited debate, and then must vote on the conference report in what’s called an up or down fashion—either you vote yea, or you vote nay. This can also sometimes be referred to as a clean vote.
If either chamber votes down the conference report, the bill is dead. If both chambers agree to the conference report, the bill is passed by Congress, but it’s not a law yet.
President’s Action on the Bill
Once the House and the Senate have passed the same bill, it goes to the White House for the president to consider. At this point, the president has three choices that can lead to four possible outcomes.
First, the president could sign the bill into law. Second, the president could veto the bill. The House and the Senate have the opportunity to overturn a vetoed bill with a two-third vote in each chamber. This is a pretty rare outcome, but it does happen. Third, the president does nothing.
If the president doesn’t either sign or veto the bill, then one of two things will happen. If the president lets the bill sit, then after 10 days have passed, if Congress is still in session, the bill becomes a law without the president’s endorsement.
On the other hand, if the president lets the bill sit, and after 10 days Congress is out of session, then the bill is effectively vetoed. When this happens, it is called a pocket veto, which is also a pretty rare event.
Learn more about the powers granted to the president by the Constitution.
Differences between the House and the Senate
The House has 435 members; the Senate has 100 senators. House members serve 2-year terms; Senators serve 6-year terms. In each congressional election about one-third of the Senate is up for re-election, but all House seats are up for grabs.
The rules of debate on the House floor are highly restricted; the rules of debate in the Senate are much less limited. Compared to the Senate, House committees are quite powerful. And as a larger body, the House relies on its committees to do more of the work of legislating, whereas the Senate winds up doing more of that work on the chamber floor, relative to the House.
In the House, if you want to offer an amendment to a bill on the House floor, the amendment has to be relevant to the topic of the bill. This is known as the germaneness restriction.
In the Senate, however, there are no germaneness rules. When non-germane amendments get added to Senate bills, they are known as riders.
For the most part, any bill can begin its legislative journey in either the House or the Senate.
Responsibilities of the House and the Senate
There is no proper order, and sometimes so-called companion bills on the same topic are introduced in both chambers at the same time. The only exception being a bill that deals with raising revenue, or taxes, is constitutionally required to begin in the House.
The Senate also has a few duties that the House does not. Only the Senate can pass international treaties, which require a two-thirds vote. Also, only the Senate deals with confirming presidential nominations to executive offices and the judiciary. Another key difference is that it is not possible to filibuster bills in the House, but this is possible in the Senate.
Common Questions about Rules and Responsibilities of the House and the Senate
Unanimous consent means that the 100 senators in the Senate unanimously agree to the rules that govern the debate over a bill.
A conference committee is a temporary joint committee, made up of Senators and House members who come together to negotiate a revised version of bills that both the chambers have passed.
If the US president doesn’t either sign or veto a bill, then one of two things will happen. If the president lets the bill sit, then after 10 days have passed, if Congress is still in session, the bill becomes a law without the president’s endorsement. On the other hand, if after 10 days Congress is out of session, then the bill is effectively vetoed.