How a Bill Becomes a Law in the U.S.

Anyone may draft a bill, but only members of Congress can introduce, or sponsor, a bill. When a senator or representative introduces a bill, he or she sends it to the clerk of the Senate or House, who gives it a number and title. From here, the bill goes on to the appropriate committee. Committees specialize in different areas, such as foreign relations or agriculture, and are made up of small groups of senators or representatives.

The committee may decide the bill is unwise or unnecessary and "table" it, meaning it is never discussed again. Or it may decide the bill is worthwhile and hold hearings to listen to facts and opinions presented by experts and other interested people, which can be presented in person or in writing. After members of the committee have debated the bill and perhaps changed it by adding amendments, a vote is taken. If most committee members vote in favor of the bill, it is sent back to the House.

Members of the full House debate the bill and offer amendments. The House votes on the bill. If the bill passes, it goes on to the other House for debate, possible amendments, and a vote. If it is defeated in either House, the bill dies.

Sometimes, senators try to defeat a bill by filibustering. This is when a senator or senators give long speeches in an effort to delay any measure, motion, or amendment before the Senate. (There is no limit to the amount of time the Senate can debate a bill.) The tactic is often used by the minority side, or the side that opposes the bill that would likely pass if it came to a vote. The thinking is that the majority side will withdraw the bill or give in on key points after enduring hours of dull speeches. In the Senate, a process called cloture ends a filibuster and forces a vote. To use cloture, a senator must file a cloture motion that has been signed by 16 senators, and at least 60 senators must vote in favor of cloture. Filibusters aren't allowed in the House of Representatives because there is a limited amount of time a bill can be debated in the House.

Oftentimes, the House and Senate pass the same bill, but with different amendments. When this happens, the bill goes to a conference committee, which is made up of members of both Houses. The conference committee works to resolve differences between the versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate. When a majority of the committee members agree that it is ready, the bill goes before the full House and Senate for a vote. If a majority of both Houses vote for the bill, it goes to the President for approval.

After its final passage by both Houses, the bill is sent to the President. If the president approves the bill and signs it, the bill becomes a law. However, if the president disapproves, he or she vetoes the bill by refusing to sign it and sending it back to the House of origin with reasons for the veto. A veto can be the end of a bill, or Congress can try to override the President. If the sponsoring House decides to try to override the veto, the objections are read and debated, and a roll-call vote is taken.

If the bill receives less than two-thirds of the votes in that House, it is defeated and goes no farther. But if it passes with at least a two-thirds majority, it is sent to the other House for a vote. If that House also passes it by a two-thirds majority, the President's veto is overridden, and the bill becomes a law.

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