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Senate Hold

A “Senate hold” is how a U.S. senator informally signals his objection to a bill or presidential nomination.

Most congressional actions clear parliamentary hurdles by “unanimous consent” of the Senate, so a senator who intends to object to such procedures can, effectively, hold up the action.

He may announce his intentions publicly or, more frequently, inform his party leader and place a “secret hold” on an action.

Holds have become more common since the 1970s, when the Senate began using many more unanimous consent agreements to advance a greater volume of legislation, and opponents have suggested many changes to reform or abolish the practice.

The most recent challenges to this custom include a 2010 letter in which 69 senators pledged not to place holds and a 2011 resolution declaring that, in the case of secret holds, either a senator’s identity is revealed after two days or the hold is assigned to the party leader. 

The latter of these reforms has been easily circumvented by the tag-team hold.

A study from the Brookings Institution found that reforming the Senate hold process has proven problematic.

Use of “Senate Hold” in a sentence

  • Senate holds can be placed anonymously and are often used as a negotiating tactic to extract concessions from the majority party or to draw attention to a particular issue.
  • While the use of senate holds is controversial, they remain a powerful tool for individual senators to exert influence over the legislative process and to advance their own policy goals.