Floor Action

At this point, the path a bill takes depends on whether it is in the House or the Senate. In both Chambers of Congress, the bill will come up for debate, amendments, including riders, can be offered, and a final vote taken. Floor debate in either Chamber is reported in the Congressional Record and is available on LexisNexis® Congressional the day after the debate occurred.

Senate Floor Activity

In the 100-Member Senate, the reported bill is placed on the calendar and made available for debate. The ground rules for debate in this smaller Chamber are not restrictive and the smaller size of the Senate makes debate more manageable than in the larger House. One form of restriction on debate is reached when the leadership negotiates a unanimous consent agreement that sets specific time limits on the debate. Another restriction occurs when a Senator offers a motion to table (which is not debatable and stops debate on whatever was being discussed).

Unless a Senator objects, any Senator can speak as long as he or she wants. A Senator speaking for a long time in order to block consideration of a motion or a piece of legislation is filibustering. The Senate must vote to invoke cloture to stop a filibuster. The mere threat of a filibuster often is enough to block Senate action on a bill.

House Floor Activity

The much larger House needs to take additional steps before it can consider the reported legislation. Without stringent limitations, debate in the 435-Member House of Representatives would be chaotic. One such limitation involves sending the bill to the House Committee on Rules. The committee "reports out" a separate resolution (H.Res.) setting time limits for debate on the bill. This resolution, known as the bill's rule for consideration, can limit the number of amendments offered to the bill, or even specify which amendments may be offered.

Another limitation is the use of the House's Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union (also known as the Committee of the Whole). Although every Member of the House is a member of this committee, its rules are less restrictive, and designed to speed up operations. For example, while 218 Members constitute a quorum in the House itself, only 100 Members (an easier number to gather on short notice) are required for a quorum in the Committee of the Whole. Certain obstructive motions that are permitted in the House are not permitted in the Committee of the Whole.

Other alternatives to the use of a "rule" are the motion to suspend the rules and pass a bill, which limits debate on the bill to 40 minutes and does not allow for amendments, or a unanimous consent request. The latter is a motion requesting unanimous agreement for the bill to pass. This means the bill will pass only if there is no objection; there is no opportunity for debate or amendment. The danger with using this approach is that it only takes one Member to object and stop the bill.

Finally, the House requires that amendments offered must be germane to the bill. A single Member of the House can object to an amendment being considered if it isn't germane to the bill.