"Holds" in the Senate
Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress
Holds are an informal device unique to the upper body. They permit a single Senator or any
number of Senators to stop—sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently—floor
consideration of measures or matters that are available to be scheduled by the Senate. A hold, in
brief, is a request by a Senator to his or her party leader to delay floor action on a measure or
matter. It is up to the majority leader to decide whether, or for how long, he will honor a
colleague’s hold. Scheduling the business of the Senate is the fundamental prerogative of the
majority leader, and it is done in consultation with the minority leader.
Relatively little is known about holds, and their exact origin appears lost in the mists of history.
They probably evolved from the early traditions of comity, courtesy, reciprocity, and
accommodation that characterized the Senate’s work. Holds have received limited attention from
scholars, journalists, or pundits, in part because there is hardly any public record of who places
holds, how it is done (often by letter to the party leader), how many holds are placed on any bill,
or how long they will be honored by the majority leadership. The list of Democratic and
Republican Senators who have holds on various measures is kept by the respective leaders of
Only Senators may use holds, but there have been instances when they have been invoked by
legislative staff. House Members, lobbyists, or executive officials may request Senators to place
holds on measures or matters that they prefer the Senate not take up. Originally used by Senators
to ensure that they would be notified in advance about any time-limitation agreement or motion to
proceed and consulted about certain bills and nominations that may be brought to the floor, holds
have evolved to become a potent extra-parliamentary practice.
Holds are a potent blocking device because they are linked to the Senate’s tradition of extended
debate and unanimous consent agreements. Party leaders understand that to ignore holds could
precipitate objections to unanimous consent requests and filibusters. Unlike filibusters, which
may be partly educational in their purpose and which are televised nationally over C-SPAN, holds
require no public utterance. Little surprise that holds are sometimes referred to as a “silent
Holds are useful devices for gaining leverage and fostering negotiations. Senators, for example,
may indicate that they have holds on measures or nominations to alert appropriate colleagues that
they want to be consulted about a measure or nomination, signal displeasure with the
administration, or retaliate in kind against lawmakers who have placed holds on their bills. In
today’s workload-packed and deadline-driven Senate, holds are often particularly effective at the
end of a session when sponsors of measures may be more open to compromise with the
lawmakers having holds on their bills. Holds, too, have the virtue of giving lawmakers additional
time to study legislation, especially during the end-of-session rush to adjourn, and alerting party
leaders to potential scheduling problems.
Informally, there have been attempts by some analysts to classify holds. For example, there are
so-called informational holds, where Senators wish to be informed or consulted before a measure
or nomination is brought to the floor; revolving or rotating holds, where one Senator, and then
another and so on, will place holds; Mae West holds, which suggest that the Senator(s) who
employed the hold wants to bargain with the proponents of the legislation or nomination;
retaliatory, or tit-for-tat, holds; and choke holds, where the objective is to kill the affected bill or
nomination. The use of secret or anonymous holds has triggered the most recent proposals for
Over the years, Senators and party leaders have suggested that changes need to be made in the use
of holds, see CRS Report RL31685, Proposals to Reform “Holds” in the Senate, by Walter J.
Oleszek. The objective of the proposals is not to eliminate the practice but to subject it to
openness and accountability. For example, in 2006 the Senate adopted an amendment to an ethics
and lobbying bill (S. 2349) requiring Senators who place holds on measures or matters to publish
that fact in the Congressional Record within three days after they have provided written notice to
a party leader. S. 2349 failed to be enacted into law. The next year the Senate adopted—for the
first time ever—a formal and statutory policy limiting the ability of Senators to place anonymous
holds with the enactment into law of S. 1, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (P.L.
110-81). The new holds policy is outlined in Section 512 of S. 1, and is titled “Notice of
Objecting to Proceeding.” Section 512 lays out the exact steps for making a secret hold public,
seeCRS Report RL34255, Senate Policy on "Holds": Action in the 110th Congress, by Walter J.
Oleszek. The newness of Section 512 means that it remains a work in progress. Some time needs
to pass before an assessment might be made of its impact and influence on senatorial decision-
making and behavior.
Walter J. Oleszek
Senior Specialist in American National Government