Presiding Officer of the United States Senate
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The Presiding Officer of the United States Senate is the majority–party senator who presides over the United States Senate and is charged with maintaining order and decorum, recognizing members to speak, and interpreting the Senate's rules, practices and precedents. Senate presiding officer is a role, not an actual office.
The Vice President of the United States is assigned the responsibility by the Constitution of presiding over the Senate and designated as its president. The vice president has the authority (ex officio, for he or she is not an elected member of the Senate) to cast a tie-breaking vote. Constitution provides for appointment of a President pro tempore to preside when the vice president was absent from the body. Rarely, however, has a vice president presided over the Senate over the past half–century.
The President pro tempore, who by custom is the most senior Senator of the majority party, is the official stand–in president, but nominally a junior senator designated by the President pro tempore presides. An exception to this pattern is when the Senate hears the impeachment trials of the President of the United States, in which the Chief Justice of the United States is the presiding officer.
The Constitution provides for two officers to preside over the Senate. Article One, Section 3, Clause 4 designates the Vice President of the United States as the President of the Senate. In this capacity, the vice president was expected to preside at regular sessions of the Senate, casting votes only to break ties. From John Adams in 1789 to Richard Nixon in the 1950s, presiding over the Senate was the chief function of vice presidents, who had an office in the Capitol, received their staff support and office expenses through the legislative appropriations, and rarely were invited to participate in cabinet meetings or other executive activities. In 1961, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson changed the vice presidency by moving his chief office from the Capitol to the White House, by directing his attention to executive functions, and by attending Senate sessions only at critical times when his vote, or ruling from the chair, might be necessary. Vice presidents since Johnson's time have followed his example.
Next, Article One, Section 3, Clause 5 provides that in the absence of the vice president the Senate could choose a president pro tempore to temporarily preside and perform the duties of the chair. Since vice presidents presided routinely in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Senate thought it necessary to choose a president pro tempore only for the limited periods when the vice president might be ill or otherwise absent. As a result, the Senate frequently elected several presidents pro tempore during a single session.
On three occasions during the 19th century, the Senate was without both a president and a president pro tempore:
- July 9–11, 1850, following Millard Fillmore's accession to the presidency upon the death of Zachary Taylor, until William R. King was elected president pro tempore;
- September 19–October 10, 1881, following Chester Arthur's accession to the presidency upon the death of James A. Garfield, until Thomas F. Bayard was elected president pro tempore;
- November 25–December 7, 1885, following the death of Vice President Thomas A. Hendricks, until John Sherman was elected president pro tempore.
Additionally, Article One, Section 3, Clause 6 grants to the Senate the sole power to try federal impeachments and spells out the basic procedures for impeachment trials. Among the requirements is the stipulation that the Chief Justice is to preside over presidential impeachment trials. This rule underscores the solemnity of the occasion and aims, in part, to avoid the possible conflict of interest of a Vice President's presiding over the proceeding for the removal of the one official standing between them and the presidency. This has occurred only twice:
- Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presided over the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868;
- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist presided over the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton in 1999.
Manner of address
The presiding officer is usually addressed as "Mr. President" or "Madame President." One exception is during impeachment trials of the president; the Chief Justice was referred to as "Mr. Chief Justice" both in 1868 and in 1999 while presiding over the Senate.
During joint sessions of Congress in which the President of the United States is giving the address, practices have varied as to how the President refers to the Vice President. President Barack Obama and his immediate predecessor George W. Bush have addressed the Vice President as "Vice President Biden" (in 2010) and "Vice President Cheney" (in 2008 and several previous years), or as "Mr. Vice President" (George W. Bush in 2001). However, earlier presidents referred to the Vice President as "Mr. President" while addressing a joint session of Congress; Eisenhower, for instance, did so in 1960, and George H. W. Bush did so in 1991.
List of Presiding Officers of the United States Senate
- List of Vice Presidents of the United States
- List of Presidents pro tempore of the United States Senate
- Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the presiding officer of the United States House of Representatives
- "President Pro Tempore". senate.gov. United States Senate. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
- Gerhardt, Michael J. "Essay on Trial of Impeachment". The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved November 2, 2016.
- See closing argument of Thaddeus Stevens during the trial of President Johnson and a transcript of Day 17 of the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton