House and Senate Rules of Procedure: A Comparison
House and Senate Rules of Procedure:
Updated April 16, 2008
Specialist on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
House and Senate Rules of Procedure:
More differences than similarities emerge when comparing selected House and
Senate rules of procedure for referring legislation to committees, and for scheduling,
raising and considering measures on the floor.
While the House uses four calendars (Union, House, Private, Discharge), the
Senate only employs two calendars (Legislative and Executive). The House’s system
of special days for considering certain types of measures (e.g., “District Days”) has
no equivalent in the Senate.
In making scheduling decisions, the Speaker typically consults only with
majority party leaders and selected Representatives whereas the Senate Majority
Leader confers broadly with minority party leaders and interested Senators. The
Speaker’s dual position as leader of the majority party and the House’s presiding
officer gives him more authority to govern floor proceedings than the Senate’s
presiding officer. While debate time is always restricted in the House, individual
Senators generally have the right to unlimited debate.
Most noncontroversial measures are approved by “suspension of the rules” in
the House, and by unanimous consent in the Senate. Floor consideration of major
bills is generally governed by “special rules” in the House, and by “complex
unanimous consent agreements” in the Senate. The House typically meets in the
Committee of the Whole to consider major legislation; no such committee exists in
the Senate. The House considers and amends legislation in a more structured manner
(e.g., by section or title) than the Senate. In addition, while germaneness of
amendments is required in the House, it is mandated only in four instances in the
Senate. Rollcall votes can be requested at almost any time in the Senate, but only
after completing a voice or division vote in the House.
Because the Senate often recesses instead of adjourning at the end of the day,
Senate legislative days can continue for several calendar days. By contrast, the
House routinely adjourns at the end of each legislative day.
In troduction ......................................................1
Referral of Legislation..............................................1
Scheduling and Raising Measures.....................................2
Calling Up Measures...........................................3
Special Rules vs. Complex Unanimous Consent Agreements............4
Legislation Blocked in Committee................................5
Presiding Officer and Recognition Practices.........................6
Appealing Rulings of the Chair...................................7
Debate Time Restrictions........................................8
Adjournment and Legislative Days...............................12
List of Tables
Table 1. Scheduling and Raising Measures: Comparison of House and
Table 2. Floor Consideration: Comparison of House and Senate Procedures..13
House and Senate Rules of Procedure:
House and Senate rules of procedure are largely a function of the number of
members comprising each chamber. In the House, a structured legislative process
and strict adherence to the body’s rules and precedents have resulted from the need
to manage how 435 Representatives make decisions. By contrast, the Senate’s
smaller membership has brought about a less formal policy-making process and a
more flexible approach to the chamber’s standing rules. While individual
Representatives must typically yield to the majority will of the House, the Senate
usually accommodates the interests of individual Senators.
This report compares selected House and Senate rules of procedure for various
stages of the legislative process: referral of legislation to committees; scheduling and
calling up measures; and floor consideration. No attempt is made to present a
comprehensive discussion of how both chambers operate.
Referral of Legislation
In both the House and Senate, the presiding officer (see “Presiding Officer and
Recognition Practices” section) refers newly-introduced legislation and measures
passed by the other chamber to the appropriate standing committee. Upon advice
from the Parliamentarian, the presiding officer bases referral decisions on the
chamber’s rules and precedents for subject matter jurisdiction. Legislation passed
by the other body usually receives floor consideration without reference to a
committee if there already is a companion bill on a calendar (see discussion of
calendars in next section).
The House changed its referral rule (Rule XII, clause 2) at the beginning of theth
104 Congress. This change was aimed at reducing the number of measures referred
to more than one committee, commonly called “multiple referrals.” The rules change
eliminated joint referrals, a type of multiple referral where a measure is
simultaneously referred to two or more committees. Under the new rule, the Speaker
designates “a committee of primary jurisdiction” (based on the committee
jurisdictions itemized in Rule X) when referring measures to more than one
committee. In practice, two types of multiple referrals can take place if the Speaker
first selects a primary committee: a sequential referral (the measure is referred to one
committee, then to another, and so on; the Speaker can establish time limits for each
committee’s consideration); and a split referral (specifically designated portions ofth
a measure are referred to one or more committees). In the 108 Congress, House
rules were changed to allow the Speaker to not designate a primary committee “under
House committees often develop “memorandums of understanding” (sometimes
referred to as “letters of agreement”) which explain an agreement between
committees about how to divide jurisdiction over specific policy issues. These
memorandums are sent to the Speaker in the form of letters from the involved
committee chairmen, and are sometimes printed in the Congressional Record. The
memorandums seek to advise the Speaker on referral decisions where committee
jurisdictions are unclear or overlapping.
Under the Senate’s referral rule (Rule XVII, paragraph 1), legislation is referred
to “the committee which has jurisdiction over subject matter which predominates”
in the measure (sometimes referred to as “predominant jurisdiction”).1 Senate Rule
XXV lists the subjects for which the standing committees are responsible. Senate
Rule XIV requires that measures be read twice on different legislative days (see
“Adjournment and Legislative Days” section) before being referred to a committee.
Most bills and joint resolutions, however, are considered as having been read twice
and are referred to committee upon introduction. Under Rule XIV, when a Senator
demands two readings and there is objection to the measure’s second reading, the
measure is placed directly on the Calendar of Business (see next section) without
reference to committee.
Three types of multiple referrals — joint, sequential and split — are allowed in
the Senate. In practice, measures are referred to multiple committees by unanimous
consent. Under the Senate’s standing rules (Rule XVII, paragraph 3), the Senate
Majority and Minority Leaders can make a joint leadership motion to jointly or
sequentially refer legislation to multiple committees. However, this rule has never
been used since its adoption by the Senate in 1977. In general multiple referrals are
more common in the House than in the Senate.
Scheduling and Raising Measures
Measures reported from House committees (except for private measures) are
referred to either the Union or House Calendar (Rule XIII, clause 1(a)). In general,
the Union Calendar receives all measures which would be considered in the
Committee of the Whole, such as tax, authorization, and appropriations measures.
All other public bills and public resolutions are referred to the House Calendar (Rule
XIII, clause 1(a)(2)). The House also maintains a Private Calendar (Rule XIII,
clause 1(a)(3); and Rule XV, clause 5) for measures of a private character affecting
1 Treaties and nominations submitted by the President also are referred to committees to be
studied and reported. This report does not discuss procedures governing Senate
consideration of treaties and nominations. See the discussion of these procedures in U.S.stnd
Congress, Senate, Riddick’s Senate Procedure, S.Doc. No. 101-28, 101 Cong., 2 sess.
(Washington: GPO, 1992), 1608 p.
individual persons or entities, and a Calendar of Motions to Discharge Committees
(Rule XIII, clause 1(b); and Rule XV, clause 2) from further consideration of
particular measures (see “Legislation Blocked in Committee” section for a discussion
of the discharge motion).
The Senate only has two calendars: the Calendar of Business (commonly called
the “Legislative Calendar”), and the Executive Calendar. Nominations and treaties
are referred to the Executive Calendar. Legislation reported from committee are
referred to the Calendar of Business, or placed on this calendar by unanimous
consent. As discussed earlier, Rule XIV provides a procedure for placing measures
on the Calendar of Business without reference to committee.
A measure commonly becomes eligible for floor consideration in both chambers
once it has been placed on a calendar. The calendar number assigned to a measure
indicates the chronological order the measure was placed on the calendar, not the
order for floor consideration.
Calling Up Measures
The scheduling of legislation for House floor action is the fundamental
prerogative of the Speaker. Individual Representatives cannot easily circumvent,
influence, or reverse leadership decisions about which measures should come to the
floor. The most significant and controversial measures are usually made in order for
floor consideration by a “special rule” passed by a majority vote of the House (see
next section). Less controversial measures are often raised under the “suspension of
the rules” procedure (Rule XV, clause 1) every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
and during the last six days of a session. On these “suspension days”(and at other
times by unanimous consent or by special rule), the Speaker may recognize a
Member to move to suspend the rules and pass a measure. A suspension motion
must be approved by two-thirds of those present and voting. The House may also
agree to take up a measure by unanimous consent, but does so much less frequently
than the Senate.
House rules set aside specific days of the month when bills from the Private
Calendar (always the first Tuesday, Rule XV, clause 5(a); also, the third Tuesday,
Rule XV, clause 5(b)(1), at the Speaker’s discretion) can be brought up for floor
consideration. Legislation involving the District of Columbia can be raised on the
second and fourth Mondays of each month (Rule XV, clause 4) sometimes referred
to as “District Days.” The Calendar Wednesday procedure (Rule XV, clause 6)
reserves Wednesdays for the “call of committees,” during which time committees can
raise reported bills that have not been granted a special rule or otherwise made
privileged for floor action. In today’s House, Calendar Wednesday is usually
dispensed with by unanimous consent. All these procedures require a simple
majority for passage, except for correction measures which require a three-fifths vote.
Certain “privileged” measures reported by the committees on Appropriations,
Budget, House Administration, Rules, and Standards of Official Conduct can be
called up at any time under House Rule XIII, clause 5(a). Rules governing privileged
reports by the Committee on Rules are detailed under Rule XIII, clause 6.
The Senate Majority Leader has the authority to raise measures for Senate floor
consideration. Most measures reach the Senate floor either by a simple unanimous
consent request, or under a complex unanimous consent agreement (described in next
section). The Majority Leader also can offer a debatable motion to proceed to the
consideration of a measure. Before scheduling measures for floor action, the
Majority Leader consults with the Minority Leader, appropriate committee chairmen,
and individual Senators who have notified him of their interest in specific measures.
Consultation with individual Senators is necessary because most measures are raised
by unanimous consent.
A Senator or group of Senators can place a “hold” on the bringing up of
measures. “Holds” are an informal custom in the Senate. Early in the 106th
Congress, Senate Majority Leader Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle announced
that all Senators, who wished to place a hold on any measure, must notify the sponsor
and the committee of jurisdiction of their intentions before providing such notice in
writing to the respective party leader.
Special Rules vs. Complex Unanimous Consent Agreements
“Special rules” establish the parliamentary conditions governing House floor
consideration of most major measures. The House Rules Committee reports a special
rule (often referred to as a “rule”) in the form of a simple resolution. The typical
special rule provides a specific amount of time for general debate and determines
whether or not amendments are in order. A rule may limit debate on specific
amendments and waive points of order against specific provisions or amendments.
Because special rules are “privileged” for floor consideration under Rule XIII, clause
6, they can be called up, debated, and voted upon at any time. Special rules must be
agreed to by a majority vote of the House.
According to House precedents, the Rules Committee can report a special rule
for a bill that is pending before a committee. The effect of this rarely-used authority
is to discharge the bill from the committee. Conversely, Representatives can move
to discharge the Rules Committee from considering a special rule after it has been
before the committee for seven legislative days (see “Legislation Blocked in
Committee” section for a discussion of the discharge motion).2 The Calendar
Wednesday procedure (see previous section) allows committees to call up measures
they have reported, but which have not been granted a special rule.
In the Senate, complex unanimous consent agreements specify the parliamentary
conditions governing floor consideration of major measures.3 These agreements
(sometimes referred to as “time agreements”) can limit debate time, structure the
2 Special rules are usually reported as original measures by the Rules Committee. Therefore,
to attempt to discharge a special rule from this committee, a Representative must first
introduce a special rule in the form of a simple resolution (the resolution cannot provide for
the consideration of more than one bill or resolution). The Representative can move to
discharge this resolution from the Rules Committee after seven legislative days have passed.
3 Simple unanimous consent agreements, which are offered orally, are used for
noncontroversial measures and routine floor business (e.g., to “rescind” a quorum call).
amendment process, and waive points of order against specific provisions or
amendments. The agreements are negotiated by the Majority Leader, in consultation
with the Minority Leader, committee chairmen, and interested Senators. These
negotiations are conducted in private meetings or, less frequently, on the Senate
floor. A unanimous consent agreement must be accepted by all Senators on the floor
when the Majority Leader or his designee formally offers the agreement. The
objection of one Senator prevents the agreement from taking effect. An individual
Senator can then request the leadership to modify the unanimous consent agreement
to accommodate his or her concerns. Complex unanimous consent agreements are
printed in the Senate’s daily “Calendar of Business,” and in the Congressional
Legislation Blocked in Committee
Both chambers have procedures for calling up measures that have not been
reported by a committee. In deference to each committee’s right to consider
legislation, Representatives and Senators are generally reluctant to employ these
Members of the House may offer a motion to discharge a committee from
considering a measure 30 days after the measure was referred to the committee (7
days for resolutions before the Rules Committee). If 218 Members then sign a
discharge petition, the discharge motion is placed on the Discharge Calendar and can
be called up on the second or fourth Mondays of each month. If the motion is
adopted, a motion to call up the underlying measure for immediate consideration can
then be offered. Most discharge motions do not attract the required 218 signatures,
and few have been adopted since the discharge rule’s (Rule XV, clause 2) inception.
Nevertheless, the act of filing a discharge petition, or threatening to do so, is
sometimes used to prompt committee action on measures. The motion to suspend
the rules and pass a measure is another procedure for raising unreported measures,
but is rarely done over the objection of the relevant committee chairman. As
discussed earlier, the two-thirds vote required for approving suspension motions
means they are generally employed to call up noncontroversial measures.
It is easier to circumvent committees in the Senate than in the House, primarily
because Senators generally have the right to offer non-germane amendments
(commonly known as “riders”) to measures being considered on the floor.4 For
example, a Senator could offer an amendment containing the text of a bill blocked
in committee. A Senator also could use Rule XIV (discussed earlier) to bypass a
committee that has not reported a particular measure. In this situation, the Senator
would reintroduce the bill, demand two readings, and then object to the second
reading. Under Rule XIV, the measure would be placed directly on the Calendar of
Business. Other Senate procedures for bypassing committees, such as the motion to
discharge a committee and the motion to suspend the rules, are employed so
infrequently they are not discussed here. Senate committees are sometimes
discharged by unanimous consent.
4 There are four instances when germaneness of amendments is required in the Senate. See
the “Amending Measures” section for more information.
Table 1. Scheduling and Raising Measures:
Comparison of House and Senate Procedures
Four calendars Two calendars
(Union, House, Private, Discharge) (Legislative and Executive)
Special days for raising measuresaNo special days
Scheduling by Speaker and majorityScheduling by majority party leadership in
party leadership in consultation withbroad consultation with minority party
only selected Representativesleaders and interested Senators
No practice of “holds”Individual Senators can place “holds” on
the raising of measures, within limitations
Powerful role of Rules Committee No committee with equivalent role
Special rules (approved by majorityComplex unanimous consent agreements
vote) govern floor consideration of most(approved by unanimous consent) govern
major legislation floor consideration of major measures
Non-controversial measures usuallyNon-controversial measures approved by
approved under suspension of the rulesunanimous consent
Difficult to circumvent committeeEasier to circumvent committee
consideration of measuresconsideration of measures
a. There are special days for calling up bills under the suspension of the rules and Calendar
Wednesday procedures, for raising measures from the Private Calendar, and for bringing up
legislation involving the District of Columbia.
Presiding Officer and Recognition Practices
The Speaker of the House is both the leader of the majority party and the
chamber’s presiding officer. In this dual position, the Speaker uses his parliamentary
and political powers to govern House floor proceedings. He has the discretionary
power to recognize, or not recognize, Members to speak. When a Representative
seeks recognition, the Speaker will frequently ask: “For what purpose does the
Gentleman (Gentlewoman) rise?” The Speaker does so in order to determine what
business the Member wants to conduct. If the business does not have precedence
(e.g., a special order speech), the Speaker can usually deny recognition. The Speaker
does adhere to some established House practices of recognition, such as giving
Members of the committee reporting a bill priority recognition for offering floor
A Speaker has the right to vote and to debate from the floor, if he wishes. The
extent to which this right is exercised varies from Speaker to Speaker. The Speaker
presides over House floor proceedings5, but not over meetings of the Committee of
the Whole (formally, the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union).
He appoints a majority party Representative to preside as chairman of the Committee
of the Whole. The House resolves into the Committee of the Whole, a committee to
which all Members belong, to consider measures that will be amended (see
“Amending Measures” section). A non-partisan Parliamentarian, an officer of the
House, is always present to advise the presiding officer on rulings and precedents.
The Vice President of the United States is the Senate’s official presiding officer
(formally, “President of the Senate”), as provided in Article I of the Constitution.
The Constitution also requires that a “President pro tempore” preside over the Senate
in the Vice President’s absence. The President pro tempore, in modern times the
most senior Senator of the majority party, is elected by a majority vote of the Senate.
In practice, the Vice President and the President pro tempore seldom preside over
Senate proceedings. The Vice President typically presides when he might be required
to break a tie vote on an important administration priority. Most of the time, the
President pro tempore exercises his right under the Senate’s standing rules (Rule 1)
to appoint a Senator as “Acting President pro tempore.” This senator, in turn, can
appoint another Senator to serve as Acting President pro tempore. As a result, the
duties of presiding officer are routinely filled by a rotation of junior and first-term
Senators of the majority party who preside for approximately one hour at a time.
Since the Senate’s official presiding officer is not a member of the body, the
presiding officer position does not have the same powers to control floor proceedings
as those held by the Speaker of the House. The Senate’s presiding officer may speak
only if granted permission to do so by the unanimous consent of the membership, and
he may vote (as noted above) only to break a tie.6 He also must recognize the first
Senator standing and seeking recognition. When several Senators seek recognition
at the same time, the Senate’s precedents give preferential recognition to the Majority
and Minority Leaders, and the majority and minority floor managers, in that order.
The Senate’s presiding officer never interrogates Senators about their purpose for
seeking recognition. A non-partisan Senate Parliamentarian is always present to
advise on rulings and precedents.
Appealing Rulings of the Chair
By House tradition, the presiding officer’s rulings on points of order raised by
Members are seldom appealed. As a result, the House has a relatively large and
consistent body of precedents based on rulings of the chair. If the chair’s ruling is
appealed, the full House decides by majority vote whether to sustain or overrule this
ruling. Because this vote is viewed as a serious test of the chair’s authority, it is
typically settled along party lines, with the majority sustaining the chair. In contrast
5 In his absence, the Speaker appoints a majority party Representative to preside over
meetings of the House as “Speaker pro tempore.”
6 The Vice President may vote to break a tie; a Senator serving as presiding officer retains
his right to vote in all cases.
to the Senate, there are only a few situations when the House’s presiding officer does
not rule on points of order.7
In the Senate, the presiding officer’s rulings on points of order raised by
Senators are frequently appealed. The full Senate votes on whether to sustain or
overrule the ruling. Under Rule XX, the presiding officer has the option of
submitting any question of order to the full Senate for a majority vote decision. He
is required to submit questions of order that raise constitutional issues, and those
concerning the germaneness or relevancy of amendments to appropriations bills, to
the full Senate. Senate votes on appealed rulings of the chair, and on points of order
submitted to the full body, often turn on the political concerns of the moment rather
than on established Senate practices and procedures. As a result, the Senate has a
smaller and less consistent body of precedents than does the House. Yet, because the
Senate usually operates informally, it is a more precedent- than rule-regulated
Debate Time Restrictions
House debate nearly always takes place under some form of time restriction.
There is the “one-hour” rule for debate in the House (Rule XVII, clause 2), and the
“five-minute” rule during the amendment process in the Committee of the Whole
(Rule XVIII, clause 5(a)). Debate is limited to forty minutes for bills considered
under the suspension of the rules procedure. Special rules can impose time
restrictions on debate, and rule-making provisions in statutes often limit debate on
certain types of measures such as budget resolutions.
Time restrictions make it difficult for individual Representatives to get debate
time on the floor. When Members are accorded debate time, they rarely receive more
than two to five minutes. Representatives can be recognized to speak for up to five
minutes during the “morning hour” debates before legislative business commences
on Mondays and Tuesdays, for “one-minute” speeches (at the Speaker’s discretion
and usually at the beginning of the legislative session), and for “special order”
speeches of a specified length (ordinarily at the end of the day).
In the Senate, individual Senators have the right to unlimited debate. Senators
also can seek unanimous consent to speak out of turn on another subject, or to
interrupt proceedings with an unrelated matter. Unanimous consent is usually
granted. Senators may use their right to extended debate and employ other
parliamentary maneuvers to delay floor action, a tactic known as a “filibuster.” The
threat of a filibuster, particularly at the end of a session or near a scheduled recess,
can be used to try to extract concessions from the Senate leadership.
To be sure, it would be impossible for the Senate to act on legislation in a timely
fashion if Senators always exercised their right to extended debate. For this reason,
the Senate often agrees to debate restrictions as set forth in complex unanimous
consent agreements. Floor debate on certain types of measures, such as budget
7 For example, the chair does not rule on points of order established under the Unfunded
Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (P.L. 104-4).
resolutions, is often limited by rule-making provisions in statutes, as is the case in the
Representatives can offer a motion for the previous question to end debate in the
House (Rule XIX, clause 1(a)). Adoption of this motion by a majority vote ends
debate on the pending question, prevents the offering of any further motions and
amendments, and brings about an immediate vote on approving the pending question.
This motion cannot be offered when the House meets in the Committee of the Whole.
In the Committee of the Whole, Representatives may offer a motion to close or
limit debate on the pending question (Rule XVIII, clause 8). The motion may
propose to end debate immediately or when a specified time expires. Adoption of
this motion by a majority vote only closes or limits debate on the pending question;
it does not preclude Members from offering additional motions or amendments
(although they may be precluded from debating them) and does not produce an
immediate vote on the pending question. Members also may ask unanimous consent
to end debate on pending amendments in Committee of the Whole. When a special
rule establishes time limitations on general debate or on the debate of specific
amendments, debate ends when these time limitations expire.
Senate debate usually ends when a Senator yields the floor and no other Senator
seeks recognition, or when a previously-established time limitation (e.g., in a
complex unanimous consent agreement or a rule-making statute) expires. The
Senate’s adoption of a motion to table by majority vote will end debate on a pending
measure, motion, or amendment. The practical effect of adopting this motion,
however, is to reject the pending question. The Senate can only resume consideration
of the tabled matter by unanimous consent. Usage of the motion to table is generally
reserved for cases when the Senate is prepared to reject the pending question.
A cloture motion signed by 16 Senators can be filed to end extended debate on
a measure, motion, or amendment. This motion is filed when informal negotiations
cannot end a filibuster (discussed in previous section). Once the cloture motion is
adopted by three-fifths of the Senate, debate can only continue for a maximum of 30
more hours (called the “post-cloture” period). At the end of the post-cloture period,
debate time expires or has been yielded back, and the Senate votes on the underlying
The House typically meets in the Committee of the Whole to consider
legislation that will be amended. The House resolves itself into the Committee of the
Whole by a motion of the majority floor manager, or pursuant to the provisions of a
special rule. The rules of the Committee of the Whole expedite floor consideration
of measures. Consideration begins with a designated period of time for general
debate, followed by the offering of amendments. Legislation is amended in an
orderly fashion (i.e., by section or paragraph, or under the terms specified in a special
rule). Members can only offer amendments to the part of the bill that has been read,
or designated, for amendments. Any deviation from this orderly sequence requires
unanimous consent or a provision in a special rule. Amendments must always be
germane, unless a special rule permits the offering of specified, non-germane
The principles governing the order of voting on amendments in the Committee
of the Whole are graphically displayed in one “basic amendment tree.”8 When the
Committee of the Whole approves amendments, it does not actually amend the bill’s
text. The Committee of the Whole, similar to a House standing committee, reports
the measure back to the House with the amendment[s] it adopted. Such
amendment[s] must then be approved by the full House.
The Senate (the chamber does not have a Committee of the Whole) considers
and amends legislation in a less structured manner than the House. As a result, the
sequence and duration of floor consideration is less predictable in the Senate. When
recognized, Senators can decide whether they wish to debate the bill in general or
offer an amendment. Amendments to the bill may be proposed in any order. At
times, the Senate agrees to a complex unanimous consent agreement that allows only
specific amendments to be offered and limits the time for debate on each amendment.
However, even under unanimous consent arrangements, it is rare for the Senate to
impose a specific sequence for debate and amendment. Four amendment trees depict
the principles of precedence for offering and voting upon amendments in the Senate.9
Germaneness of amendments is not required in the Senate, except in four
specific instances: 1) if a unanimous consent agreement so requires; 2) in the post-
cloture period (see previous section); 3) if a rule-making provision in a statute so
requires (e.g., provisions of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974
governing consideration of budget resolutions and reconciliation bills); and 4) if the
underlying measure is a general appropriations bill.
The Constitution requires that a quorum — a simple majority of the membership
— be present for the House (218) and the Senate (51) to conduct business. When the
House meets in the Committee of the Whole, a quorum of 100 Members is required.
Both chambers typically assume that a quorum is present unless it can be
The rules of the House restrict when Members can make a point of order that
a quorum is not present in the House or in the Committee of the Whole. This point
of order is generally permitted only in connection with record votes. In recent years,
House quorum calls have typically lasted 15-17 minutes.
Senate quorum calls are in order at almost any time. Quorum calls made for the
purpose of obtaining the presence of a majority of Senators are called “live
8 See House Practice: A Guide to Rules, Precedents and Procedures of the House, 108th
Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: GPO, 2003), pp. 27-31.
9 See Riddick’s Senate Procedure, pp. 72-95.
quorums.” More commonly, however, a Senator will “suggest the absence of a
quorum” for purposes of constructive delay. This type of quorum suspends action
on the Senate floor without requiring the Senate to recess or adjourn. This pause in
floor action provides time for informal negotiations to take place, and for absent
Senators to reach the floor. The Clerk slowly calls the roll until a Senator asks
unanimous consent to “rescind,” or dispense with, the quorum call. There is no time
limit on this type of quorum call.
The House and Senate each have three main types of votes: voice, division, and
record. Record votes include all those in which the names of Members voting on
each side are individually recorded, and the cumulative totals of yeas and nays are
compiled. The Senate refers to record votes as “yea and nay votes” or “rollcall
votes;” in the House, record votes include both “yea and nay votes” and recorded
In each house, most questions are first put to a voice vote. For voice votes, the
chair first asks those in favor to respond “Aye,” and then those in opposition to
respond “No” (House Rule I, clause 6)10. The chair then announces which side has
prevailed. Before he or she does so, a Member may ask for a division or record vote.
For division votes (also called “standing votes”), those in favor stand up and are
counted by the chair, followed by those in opposition. The chair then announces the
result (House Rule XX, clause 1(a)). Division votes in the Senate are rare, they are
sometimes taken by Senators raising their hands instead of rising, and the chair does
not announce the number voting on each side.
The two chambers differ in their conduct of record votes. After a voice or
division vote has taken place in the House, but before the final result had been
announced, Representatives can demand either a “yea and nay vote” or a “recorded
vote,” except that a yea and nay vote may not be demanded in Committee of the
Whole. The demand for a yea and nay vote must be supported by one-fifth of those
present, or the vote may be ordered automatically if a Member objects to a pending
vote on the ground that a quorum is not present. The demand for a recorded vote
must be supported by one-fifth of a quorum in the House (a minimum of 44
Members), or by 25 Members in Committee of the Whole (House Rule XX, clauses
Record votes in the House normally take place by electronic device. Members
vote with electronic voting cards and their votes are displayed on an electronic board
in the chamber. While a vote is taking place, Members preparing to vote often look
at the electronic board to see how other Members voted. The majority and minority
party floor whips also use their board to carry out their vote-counting responsibilities.
House rules (Rule XX, clauses 2(a), 9) require a minimum 15-minute voting period
for record votes, except that in specified situations (e.g., when a record vote
immediately follows a quorum call in the Committee of the Whole) the presiding
10 No Senate rule explicitly governs voice or division votes. Also counted as a voice vote
is Senate action on which the chair declares a measure agreed to “without objection.”
officer may reduce the time to not less than five minutes. The voting period may also
be extended at the discretion of the chair. The chair also has the authority to
postpone and cluster certain votes, such as those ordered on motions to suspend the
rules (Rule XX, clause 10).
The Senate does not use an electronic voting system to conduct rollcall votes.
Under Rule XII, the Clerk calls the names of all Senators in alphabetical order
(formally, “calls the roll”). Senators come to “the well” of the Senate to vote, and the
Clerk announces how each Senator voted.11 Senators can track how colleagues have
voted by checking the tallies kept by majority and minority floor staff. A Senator’s
demand for a rollcall vote must be supported by a minimum of 11 senators, which is
one-fifth of the minimal quorum for doing business (51). In general, this requirement
is casually enforced. A 15-minute period for rollcall votes is usually established in
a unanimous consent agreement adopted on the opening day of a new session of
Congress. The party floor leaders can extend this voting time period at their
Senators can, and usually do, ask for a rollcall vote at any time a question is
pending before the Senate. They do not have to wait for a voice or division vote to
first take place. For example, a Senator offering an amendment can ask for a rollcall
vote even before debate on the amendment begins. When this happens, the yeas and
nays are ordered after the Clerk confirms that a sufficient second supports the
request. The ordering of the yeas and nays does not bring about an immediate vote.
In fact, most rollcall votes in the Senate do not take place immediately upon being
Adjournment and Legislative Days
The House routinely adjourns at the end of a day’s proceedings. As a result, the
House’s calendar days and legislative days are almost always the same. The
exceptions are when the House is in session past midnight and in a rare procedural
The motion to adjourn in the Senate ends the day’s proceedings and creates a
new legislative day when the chamber next convenes. A motion to recess, however,
keeps the Senate in the same legislative day. This means that a legislative day in the
Senate can continue for many calendar days. At times, there are procedural
advantages for the Majority Leader to keep the Senate operating in the same
legislative day. In doing so, he avoids having to conduct some routine business
required on new legislative days. Senators might otherwise use this routine business
for purposes of delay. At other times, there may be procedural advantages for the
Majority Leader to create a new legislative day by adjourning. At the beginning of
a new legislative day the motion to proceed to consider a measure is non-debatable.
This motion is fully debatable at any other time, thus creating an opportunity for a
11 Under a standing order (rarely enforced), any Senator may demand that Senators vote
from their desks.
Table 2. Floor Consideration:
Comparison of House and Senate Procedures
Presiding officer has considerablePresiding officer has little discretion in
discretion in recognizing Membersrecognizing Senators
Rulings of presiding officer Rulings of presiding officer frequently
Debate time always restrictedUnlimited debate;a individual Senators
Debate ends by majority vote in theSuper-majority vote required to invoke
House and in the Committee of thecloture; up to 30 hours of post-clotureb
Most major measures considered inNo Committee of the Whole
Committee of the Whole
Number and type of amendments oftenUnlimited amendments; bills generally
limited by special rule; bills amended byopen to amendment at any point
section or title
Germaneness of amendments requiredGermaneness of amendments not
(unless requirement is waived by specialrequired (except in four instances)
Quorum calls usually permitted only inQuorum calls in order almost any time;
connection with record votesoften used for purposes of constructive
Record votes by electronic device; can beNo electronic voting system; rollcall
requested only after voice or divisionvotes can be requested almost any time
vote is completed
House routinely adjourns at end of eachSenate often recesses instead of
legislative dayadjourning; legislative days can continue
for several calendar days
a. Except when complex unanimous consent agreements or rule-making provisions in statutes impose
b. Adoption of the motion to table by majority vote also ends Senate debate. Usage of this motion,
however, is generally reserved for cases when the Senate is prepared to reject the pending
question. See “Ending Debate” section.