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US Senate

Constitutional Powers

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The US Constitution enumerates powers held by the Senate. This article examines the power of impeachment, treaty, appointments, war declaration and expulsion of members.
    The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments . . . And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
    US Constitution, Article I, section 3, clause 6
The impeachment clause was intended to hold elected officers accountable. Historical precedent -- the British Parliament and the state constitutions -- led to vesting this power in the Senate.

For detailed arguments, see the writings of Alexander Hamilton (The Federalist, No. 65) and Madison (The Federalist, No. 47).

The order to conduct an impeachment trial must originate in the House of Representatives. Since 1789, the Senate has tried 17 federal officials, including two presidents.
    [The President] shall have Powers, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur ...
    US Constitution, Article II, section 2, clause 2
Presidential power to negotiate treaties is constrained by the need to secure a two-thirds vote of the Senate. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the Continental Congress negotiated treaties, but these treaties were not valid until two-thirds of the states had ratified them.
    [The president] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States ...
    US Constitution, Article II, section 2, clause 2
Because judges -- members of the third branch of government -- had lifelong terms, some delegates felt that the Senate should appoint members of the judiciary; those worried about monarchies wanted the President to have no say in judgeships. Those who wished to grant this power to the executive worried about cabals in the Senate.

Dividing the power to appoint judges and other officers of the government between the executive and legislative branches of government -- a compromise -- rested on precedent established by the Articles of Confederation and most state constitutions.
    The Congress shall have Power: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water...
    US Constitution, Article 1, Section 8
The Constitution divides war powers between the Congress and the President. Congress has the power to declare war; the President is Commander-in-Chief. The founders did not entrust the decision to go to war to a single individual.
    Each House [of Congress] may determine the Rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member.
    US Constitution, Article I, Section 5
One of the most contentious procedures invoked by the Senate is that of the filibuster. The Senate conducted its first continuous filibuster on 5 March 1841. The issue? Dismissal of the printers of the Senate. The filibuster continued until 11 March. The first extended filibuster began on 21 June 1841 and lasted 14 days. The issue? Establishment of a national bank.

Since 1789, the Senate has expelled only 15 members; 14 were charged with supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Senate has censured nine members.

On 2 March 1805, Vice President Aaron Burr delivered his farewell address to the Senate; he had been indicted for the murder of Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Until 2007, only four sitting Senators had been convicted of crimes.
  • John Hipple Mitchell (R-OR-1905). Mitchell was indicted and convicted of having received fees for expediting the land claims of clients before the U.S. Land Commissioner. An appeal was pending when he died in December 1905. Source: US Senate
  • Joseph R. Burton (R-KS-1906). Burton was convicted in 1904 (and again on appeal in 1906) of illegally receiving compensation for services rendered before a federal department and served five months in prison. He resigned rather than be expelled. Source: US Senate
  • Truman H. Newberry (R-MI-1920). In 1921, Newberry was tried and convicted of election “irregularities”; the conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court, and, following an investigation, the Senate declared Newberry entitled to his seat but expressed disapproval of the sum spent on his election. In the face of a movement to unseat him, Newberry resigned. Source: US Senate
  • Harrison Williams (D-NJ-1982). Williams was one of the congressional targets in the government operation known as ABSCAM. He was convicted of corruption and served 21 months of a three-year prison term. Rather than be expelled, he resigned his Senate seat on 11 March 1982. Source: US Senate

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