The Senate Moves Slowly. You Can See What They’re Doing.

Now that Democrats hold the White House and the House of Representatives, the locus of legislative action is the Senate. Democrats were able to pass the massive American Rescue Plan because a Senate rule allowed them to do so without Republican support. But so much more could be done without the filibuster rule that usually requires 60 out of 100 senators to vote Yes.

So I’ve been paying some attention to the Senate’s proceedings. The Senate has a leisurely schedule with sessions that start late in the day, long weekends and frequent vacations. I assume senators are doing something away from the Senate chamber, because it’s frequently empty. In fact, the Senate chamber is usually lightly populated even when business is being done (that’s apparently why they don’t allow the whole chamber to be shown on TV).

Like the House, the Senate has a website. You can click on Floor Proceedings to see what they did on previous days and then click on Live Proceedings to see if they’re doing anything at the moment.

This is what the Senate accomplished on Tuesday: they honored an Army chaplain and advanced two of the president’s nominees.


On Wednesday, they took action on two nominations again (one was from the previous day), honored the 100th anniversary of the birth of a baseball player, and approved a bill to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to give Covid vaccines to some people not usually eligible for treatment.

On the video feed, you’ll sometimes see the Senate majority leader standing at a podium, reading from a stack of paper, uttering the same words over and over again, in order to get a few things done. The majority leader makes a motion and then the Senate’s president pro tem, who on most days is a random senator from the majority party, has a clerk read something about the motion. The president pro tem then asks for a roll call vote. The majority leader, apparently the only other senator in the room, says “aye”, the president pro tem says it appears the ayes have it, and announces that the motion is agreed to. Then they repeat the same song and dance on another motion. The Senate’s rules aren’t designed for efficiency.ย 

Of course, sometimes a motion is something important, so the whole Senate has to vote.ย  The senators come back to the chamber to tell the clerk how they’re voting. This takes quite a while, and unlike the House, the Senate doesn’t show a running total of the Yes and No votes.

In addition, senators sometimes make speeches, either regarding the motion under consideration or something else they want to talk about. You’re not allowed to see if there are any other senators present. Some of these speeches are very good. I happened to catch two excellent ones this week.

Senator Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, made a speech condemning the stupid racist remarks of a Republican senator from Wisconsin, and Senator Warnock, Democrat of Georgia, called on the Senate to pass two bills that would reform our elections and protect voting rights (the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act). Both of these speeches were met with applause, but it was hard to see how many people were clapping or who they were.

I turned on the video when Menendez and Warnock were already talking, so would have missed their opening remarks, except that Vimeo has the official Senate videoย with the added benefit that you can scroll back to what happened earlier. Once the Senate is done for the day, both Vimeo and the Senate site make the whole day’s proceedings available.ย 

The Menendez and Warnock speeches are both on YouTube. Senator Menendez started by saying he took no pleasure in coming to the Senate floor to make these particular remarks, which suggested he was going to let loose on his Senate colleague. That’s what he did. Senator Warnock’s speech was his first as a senator. He pointed out that the entire Senate should support improving our democracy and helping people vote, the same way Republicans often did in the past. It’s not clear if there were any Republicans in the room when he spoke.