The First Day of a New Congress: A Guide to Proceedings on the Senate Floor
The First Day of a New Congress: A Guide to
Proceedings on the Senate Floor
Mildred L. Amer
Specialist on the Congress
Government and Finance Division
The Senate follows a well-established routine on the opening day of a new
Congress. The proceedings include swearing in new members, administrative business,
and election of the President pro tempore, the constitutionally mandated officer elected
to preside over the chamber in the absence of the Vice President. Other first day
activities are dependent on specific circumstances and do not occur on the first day of
every new Congress. Once these proceedings are completed, the Senate may then turn
to routine business. The Senate committee assignment process begins prior to the
convening of a new Congress and continues throughout the beginning days of a new
Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides for a system of staggered six-year
terms for Senators, one-third of their terms expiring at the conclusion of each Congress.
Thus, the Senate is a continuing body and does not have to reorganize itself each new
Congress and adopt new rules and elect new leaders as does the House of
Representatives. Any changes in Senate leadership take place in the party conferences
prior to the opening day, and there are no floor votes to ratify these changes.
The Senate Convenes1
The Constitution (20th Amendment, Section 2) mandates that a new Congress
convene at noon on January 3 in each odd numbered year, unless it has earlier passed a
law designating a different day. The 111th Congress will convene on January 6, 2009.2
In recent years, it has been the exception rather than the rule for a new Congress to begin
on January 3. Six out of the last seven Congresses — 104th ( January 4, 1995), the 105th
(January 7, 1997), the 106th (January 6, 1999), the 108th Congress (January 7, 2003), the
1 For information on organizational meetings held prior to the formal start of a new Congress, see
CRS Report RS21339, Congress’ Early Organizational Meetings, by Judy Schneider.
2 See P.L. 110-430 enacted on Oct. 15, 2008.
Only for the 107th Congress was the beginning date unchanged.
The Vice President normally presides when the Senate first convenes, and the Senate
chaplain offers a prayer. The Vice President then announces the receipt of the certificates
and credentials of election of the newly elected Senators. The reading of these documents
is waived, and they are subsequently printed in full in the Congressional Record.3
Oath of Office
The first order of business in a new Senate is the swearing in of newly elected
Senators, including reelected incumbents. Before this action is taken, however, the
Majority Leader sometimes provides a brief history of the oath of office and the two
leaders give welcoming remarks.4 If there are any contested elections, the leadership may
provide a brief status report and plan for their resolution.5 Then, the Vice President calls
the newly elected Senators to the front of the chamber in alphabetical order in groups of
four to take the oath and to “subscribe to the oath” in the official oath book.6 Each
Senator is often accompanied by the other Senator from the same state, the Senator he or
she is replacing, or a former Senator.7
The oath, which is the same for Representatives, is as follows:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the
United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and
allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental
reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the
duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
This oath is mandated by Article VI of the Constitution, and its text is set by statute (5
When Senators take the oath, they raise their right hand to swear or affirm the oath,
repeating after the Vice President. Many have held a family bible or other sacred text in
their left hands.8 There is no requirement of any kind that a bible or anything else be used
when the oath is taken. The same is true for Senators who re-enact the event with their
families in the old Senate chamber with the Vice President after the formal ceremony.
3 The Vice President, “Certificates of Election and Credentials,” Congressional Record, daily
edition, vol. 153, Jan. 4, 2007, pp. S1-S4.
4 Sen. Lott, “The Oath We Take,” Congressional Record, vol. 143, Jan. 7, 1997, pp. 4-5.
5 See, for example, the last contested Senate election: Sen. Lott, “Louisiana Election Contest,”
Congressional Record, vol. 143, Jan. 7, 1997, p. 5.
6 Each Senator is allowed to keep the pen he or she uses to sign the historic oath book, which
contains the signatures of all U.S. Senators. A Senator signs this book each time he or she takes
the oath of office.
7 Richard A. Baker [Senate Historian], Traditions, 110th Cong., 1st, Sess., S. Pub. 110-11, pp.
Photographers are present, and many Senators choose to hold something meaningful in
their left hand. These objects have been, but are not limited to, a family heirloom or
something else meaningful to the Senator. Some Senators have held nothing, and nothing
Notification to the Other Body and to the President
The Senate clerk then calls the roll, and the Majority Leader offers resolutions that
the House and the President be formally notified that a quorum of the Senate is assembled
and ready to proceed to business.9 Subsequently, the House and Senate leadership
telephone the President with the news that Congress is ready to begin its work.
Election of the President Pro Tempore
The President pro tempore is elected by the Senate to preside during the absence of10
the Vice President. Often referred to as the “President Pro Tem,” this majority party
Senator usually has the party’s longest continuous Senate service and often, by virtue of11
seniority, chairs a committee. If expecting to be unavailable for chamber duties, the
President pro tempore appoints other Senators to preside. In the 110th Congress, the
President pro tempore is Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV).
When there is a change in party control of the Senate, or a vacancy occurs, the
President pro tempore is elected by resolution and then escorted to the front of the12
chamber to be sworn in by the Vice President. Afterwards, the Senate adopts a
resolution to notify the President of the election of the President pro tempore.
From the beginning of the 104th Congress through the middle of the first session ofth
the 106 Congresses, Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) was the President pro tempore.
In June 2001, when party control of the Senate changed, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV)13th
became the President pro tempore. In the 107 Congress, because the Senate was evenly
divided on the opening day,14 Senator Byrd, a Democrat, was elected to serve as President
9 A quorum is the minimum number of Members required to be present for the transaction of
business. Under the Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution, a quorum in each House is a majority
of its members: 218 in the House and 51 in the Senate when there are no vacancies. See also
Congressional Research Service, “Congressional Quarterly’s American Congressional
Dictionary,”[http://www.crs.gov/products/guides/glossary/q.shtml], visited Sept. 30, 2008.
10 The Constitution specifies that the Vice President is the presiding officer of the Senate. The
Vice President, however, usually presides only on opening day, during ceremonial occasions, and
when needed to cast a tie-breaking vote.
11 The President pro tempore holds that office during his or her Senate term and is not reelected
at the beginning of a new Congress unless there is a change in party control.
12 Sen. Reid, “Election of the Honorable Robert C. Byrd As President Pro Tempore,”
Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, Jan. 4, 2007, pp. S5-S6.
13 Sen. Daschle, “Election of the Honorable Robert C. Byrd as President Pro Tempore,”
Congressional Record, vol. 147, June 6, 2001, p. 10013.
14 Proceedings at the convening of the Senate in the 107th Congress were somewhat different than
pro tempore until January 20, 2001, and Senator Thurmond, a Republican, was elected
to serve after January 20, 2001, when Albert Gore, a Democrat, was succeeded as Vice
President and President of the Senate by Richard Cheney, a Republican.15 Subsequently,
when Richard Cheney became the Vice President and President of the Senate, Senator
Thurmond again became President pro tempore. He took the oath of office on January
20, 2001. That same day, the Senate adopted resolutions notifying the President and the
House of Representatives of the election of the new President pro tempore.16
Daily Meeting Time for the Senate
The Senate establishes its daily hour of meeting by a resolution which must be
renewed each session of Congress. This resolution is usually offered by the Majority
Election of Officers
Since the Senate is a continuing body, its officers (Secretary of the Senate, Sergeant
at Arms, and Chaplain) do not need to be reelected on the opening day of a new Congress.
However, when there is a change in party control and/or a replacement of officers at the17
beginning of a Congress, they have to be approved by the full Senate. This was the case
on the opening day of the 110th Congress when a new Secretary of the Senate and a new18
Sergeant at Arms were elected.
The respective party secretaries are often replaced at the beginning of a Congress.
They are approved by their party conferences and then elected by the Senate. These
individuals, however, are not considered Senate officers.
other opening days because the Senate was evenly divided, with 50 Republicans and 50
Democrats. When Congress convened on January 3, 2001, Vice President Albert Gore, a
Democrat, was still President of the Senate, providing Senate Democrats with an effective
majority of one. Subsequently, at noon on January 20, 2001, when Republican Richard Cheney
was sworn in as Vice President, Senate Republicans took control of the Senate.
15 Sen. Daschle, “Election of the Honorable Robert C. Byrd As President Pro Tempore and
Election of the Honorable Strom Thurmond as President Pro Tempore,” Congressional Record,
vol. 147, Jan. 3, 2001, p. 7.
16 Sen. Roberts, “Notification to the President of the United States,” and “Notification to the
House of Representatives,” Congressional Record, vol. 147, Jan. 20, 2001, p. 149.
17 Whenever there is a change in Senate officers, their selection must be approved by the Senate.
For information on the Senate officers, see CRS Report 98-418 GOV, Senate Administrative
Officers and Officials, by Lorraine Tong.
18 “Electing Nancy Erickson As the Secretary of the Senate,” and “Electing Terrance W. Gainer
As the Sergeant At Arms and Doorkeeper,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, pp.
Other First-Day Floor Actions
Other routine organizational business is taken up on the Senate floor on the first day,
including unanimous consent requests to expedite the daily business of the Senate. At the
beginning of the 110th Congress, the Senate adopted 12 orders en bloc by unanimous
consent, including floor privileges for staff.19 In addition, the two leaders may lay out the
highlights of the legislative schedule ahead and discuss pertinent issues.20 Sometimes on
the first day, the Senate adopts resolutions providing for adjournments and for the joint
session at which Congress receives the President’s State of the Union message.
Other first day activities are dependent on specific circumstances and do not occur
on the first day of every new Congress. For example, following a presidential election,
the Senate must adopt a resolution to meet in joint session with the House to count the
electoral votes for the President and Vice President,21 continue the Joint Congressional
Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and authorize the use of the Capitol for inaugural
activities.22 On the first day of the 106th Congress, there were several announcements and
a discussion related to the pending impeachment trial of the President.23
After the Senate has completed initial organizational proceedings, it may turn to
routine business, which normally completes the legislative day. This business includes
the introduction of bills and resolutions, appointments of Senate officials, and additional
statements from Senators.
During adjournment periods preceding the start of a new Congress, the Secretary of
the Senate is authorized to receive, on behalf of the Senate, messages from the House of
Representatives, the President, and the executive departments. On the first day of a new
Congress, the presiding officer will present these messages to the Senate to allow it to
take any action that may be necessary.24
19 Sen. Reid , “Unanimous Consent Requests,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, Jan.
20 For the opening day remarks of the leaders of the 110th Congress, see Sen. Reid, “A New
Congress,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, Jan. 4, 2007, pp. S8-S11; and Sen.th
McConnell, “The 110 Congress,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 153, Jan. 4, 2007,
21 Sen. Frist, “To Provide for Counting of Electoral Votes for President and Vice President of the
United States,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 151, Jan. 4, 2005, p. S6. This takes
the form of a joint session with the House of Representatives.
22 Sen. Frist, “To Extend the Life of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural
Ceremonies,” Ibid., p. S7.
23 Sen. Lott, “The Public’s Access to the Impeachment Proceedings,” “Unanimous — Consent
Agreement — Senate Access,” and “Senate Agenda,” Congressional Record, vol. 145, Jan. 6,
24 On the first day of the 106th Congress, the Senate received a message from the House
announcing that it had impeached the President and adopted articles of impeachment which the
House managers had been instructed to carry to the Senate. See “Messages from the House
Received Subsequent to Sine Die Adjournment,” Congressional Record, vol. 145, Jan. 6, 1999,
The committee assignment process begins prior to the convening of a new Congress,
and mostly within the party groups — the Republican and Democratic conferences. The
only action visible on the chamber floor is the adoption of resolutions assigning Senators
from each party to committees agreed upon by the respective party conference. The
adoption of both resolutions is routine and occurs without amendment, because of the
tacit understanding that each party has a right to establish its own internal distribution of
work without amendment from the other.25
On the opening days of the 108th through 110th Congresses, there were no committee
assignment resolutions. They were considered on other days. On the opening day of the
107th Congress, the only committee assignment resolution taken up was one that
designated committee chairs.26 Due to the Senate’s equal division in that Congress,
Democrats chaired committees prior to January 20, 2001. Effective January 20, 2001,
with the inauguration of the Republican President and Vice President, Republican
Senators became committee chairmen.27 This arrangement lapsed when Democrats
regained control of the Senate for the balance of the 107th Congress on June 6, 2001.
25 Note, however, that each party must abide by certain Senate rules governing the assignment
process. See CRS Report RL30743, Committee Assignment Process in the U.S. Senate:
Democratic and Republican Party Procedures, by Judy Schneider.
26 Sen. Daschle, “Senate Resolution 7 — Designating the Chairmen of the Following Senate
Committees,” Congressional Record, vol. 147, Jan. 3, 2001, pp. 14-15.
27 The Senate’s equal party strength was accompanied by a broader agreement between the parties
to modify certain Senate practices during the 107th Congress. See CRS Report RS20785, Theth
Senate Powersharing Agreement of the 107 Congress (2001-2003): Key Features, by Elizabethth
Rybicki; and CRS Report RL30881, Senate Organization in the 107 Congress, Agreements
Reached in a Closely Divided Senate, by Elizabeth Rybicki.