Order Code RS20722
June 27, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The First Day of a New Congress: A Guide to
Proceedings on the Senate Floor
Mildred L. Amer
Specialist in American National Government
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.
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.
As a consequence, the Senate is a continuing body and does not have to reorganize itself
each new Congress, as does the House of Representatives, by adopting new rules and
electing new leaders. 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. Recently it has been the exception rather than the rule ,
however, for a new Congress to begin on January 3. Four out of the last five
Congresses—104th ( January 4, 1995), the 105th (January 7, 1997), the 106th ( January 6,
1999), and the 108th Congress (January 7, 2003) —convened on another date. Only for the
107th Congress was the beginning date unchanged.
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.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
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.2
Proceedings at the convening of the Senate in the 107th Congress were somewhat
different than 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.
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 often provides a brief history of the oath of office and the two leaders give
welcoming remarks.3 At the beginning of the 107th Congress, both Senator Thomas
Daschle, a Democrat , who served as majority leader until noon on January 20, 2001, and
Senator Trent Lott, a Republican, who then became majority leader, addressed the Senate.
If there are any contested elections, the leadership may provide a brief status report and
plan for their resolution.4 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.5 Each Senator is often accompanied by
the other Senator from the same state, the Senator he or she is replacing, or a former
Notification to the Other Body and to the President
The Senate clerk then calls the roll, and the Senate 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. Subsequently, the House and Senate
leadership telephone the President with the news that Congress is ready to begin its work.
The Vice President, “ Certificate of Election and Credentials,” Congressional Record, daily
edition, vol. 149 (Jan. 7, 2003), pp. S1-S4.
Sen. Trent Lott, “The Oath We Take,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 143 (Jan. 7,
1997), pp. S4-S5; Sen. Thomas Daschle, “A Historic Day,” Congressional Record, daily edition,
vol. 147 (Jan. 3, 2001 ), p. S1; and Sen. Trent Lott, “Thanking the Vice President,” Ibid., pp. S1S2.
Sen. Trent Lott, “Louisiana Election Contest,”Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 143
(Jan. 7, 1997 ), p. S5.
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.
Election of the President Pro Tempore
The President pro tempore is elected by the Senate to preside during the absence of
the Vice President.6 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 of
seniority, chairs a committee.7 If expecting to be unavailable for chamber duties, the
President pro tempore appoints other Senators to preside. In the 108th Congress, the
President pro tempore is Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK).
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 the
chamber to be sworn in by the Vice President.8 The Senate subsequently adopts a
resolution to notify the President of the election of the President pro tempore.
From the beginning of the104th Congress through the middle of the first session of
the106th Congress, 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)
became the President pro tempore.9 In the 107th Congress, because the Senate was evenly
divided on the opening day, Senator Byrd, a Democrat, was elected to serve as President
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.10 Subsequently,
when Richard Cheney, a Republican, 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
Daily Meeting Time for the Senate
The Senate establishes its daily hour of meeting by a resolution that must be renewed
each session of Congress. This resolution is also usually offered by the majority leader.
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.
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.
Sen. Frist, “Election of the Honorable Ted Stevens As President Pro Tempore of the Senate,”
Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 149 (Jan. 7, 2003 ), p. S6.
Sen. Daschle, “Election of the Honorable Robert C. Byrd as President Pro
Tempore, ”Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 147 (June 6, 2001 ), p. S5843.
Sen. Thomas 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, daily edition, vol. 147 (Jan. 3, 2001 ), pp. S6-S7.
Sen. Pat Roberts, “Notification to the President of the United States,” and “Notification to the
House of Representatives,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 147 ( Jan. 20, 2001 ), p.
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 108th Congress, the Senate adopted 12 orders en bloc by unanimous
consent, including floor privileges for staff.12 In addition, the two leaders may lay out the
highlights of the legislative schedule ahead and discuss particular pertinent issues.
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
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,13 continue the Joint Congressional
Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and authorize the use of the Capitol for inaugural
activities.14 In addition, on the first day of the 106th Congress, there were several
announcements and a discussion related to the pending impeachment trial of the
After the Senate has completed initial organizational proceedings, it may then 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 which may be necessary.16
Sen. Bill Frist , “Unanimous Consent Agreement ” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol.
149 (Jan. 7, 2003), p. S8. In the 105th Congress, special floor privileges were granted for that
Congress for a staff assistant from one particular Senator’s office to accompany that Member,
who needed assistance while in the Senate chamber.
Sen. Thomas Daschle, “Providing for Counting of Electoral Votes for President and Vice
President,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 147 (Jan. 3, 2001), p. S7. This takes the
form of a joint session with the House of Representatives.
Sen. Thomas Daschle, “Extending the Life of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural
Sen. Trent Lott, “The Public’s Access to the Impeachment Proceedings,” “Unanimous –Consent
Agreement–Senate Access,” and “Senate Agenda,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 145
(Jan. 6, 1999), pp. S7-S10.
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, daily edition, vol. 145
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.17
On the opening day of the 108th Congress, there were no committee assignment
resolutions. On the opening day of the previous congress, the only committee assignment
resolution taken up was one that designated committee chairs.18 Because of the Senate’s
equal division, 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.19 This arrangement lapsed when
Democrats regained control of the Senate for the balance of the 107th Congress on June
(Jan. 6, 1999), pp. S14-S15.
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 .
Sen. Thomas Daschle, “Senate Resolution 7 –Designating the Chairmen of the Following
Senate Committees,” Congressional Record, daily edition, vol. 147 (Jan. 3, 2001 ), p. S14.
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, The
Senate Powersharing Agreement, by Paul Rundquist.