Following up on our post about "filling the amendment tree" in the U.S. Senate, we're now responding to a twitter request to explain the unanimous consent procedure in the Senate.
Difference between House and Senate Unanimous Consent
Unanimous consent exists in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but it's tremendously important in the Senate and relatively minor in the House. In the House, the power of the Speaker and the majority is god-like. The House Rules Committee, which has 9 members of the majority party and 4 members of the minority, acts as a legislative traffic cop and decides everything that the Senate might decide by unanimous consent. Scheduling and reference to committees are in the grip of the Speaker and his or her associates. When something has broad agreement in the House, it tends to be decided by "suspending the rules and passing," which requires a two-thirds vote.
Function of Unanimous Consent in the Senate
In the Senate, there is really no way to set a clear legislative schedule without unanimous consent. Controversial bills are dictated by when they become pending business through a motion to proceed and whether the Senate invokes cloture, which is a timetable to end debate and bring a measure to a vote. But when there is broad agreement between the majority and the minority, the Senate rules that protect the rights of the minority become burdensome. By asking for unanimous consent, a Senator (typically the Majority Leader or his designee)can dispense with such arcane procedures as mandatory quorum calls in advance of cloture votes or the mandatory reading of the Senate journal. The Senate can, and often does, pass uncontroversial measures by unanimous consent.
However, because agreement requires unanimity, one Senator can object to an agreement on the floor. This is a safeguard for minority rights, but it's also the basis for the frustrating "secret holds." See our post on secret holds: Senate Procedure: Secret Holds
Identifying Unanimous Consent On The Senate Floor
How do you know when the Senate is operating under unanimous consent? The first way is to listen for unanimous consent requests on the floor that call for immediate action.
For example: Mr. President, I would ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to S.Res.67 - that the resolution be agreed to, that the preamble be agreed to, that no amendments be in order, that the motion to reconsider be considered made and laid upon the table, with no intervening action and debate, and that all statements related to the matter be printed at the appropriate place in the Record as if read.
So, as you can see, one statement like this on the floor (if agreed to) would take a bill that raises no objection through the many steps of the Senate's legislative process in a highly expedited fashion. This allows the Senate to get quite a lot of things done.
"Under the previous order"
A more important way to tell when the Senate is operating under unanimous consent is if the presiding officer says anything beginning with "Under the previous order . . ." "The previous order" is usually an unanimous consent agreement setting a timetable for debate. So if the Majority Leader asked unanimous consent on the floor today that tomorrow at 2pm, the Senate proceed to the consideration of S.J.Res.20, the presiding officer would tell the Senate at the designated time, "Under the previous order, the Senate will now proceed to the consideration of S.J.Res.20."
You will see the presiding officer in the House make a similar statement when a matter is up for consideration, but the difference between the phrasing of the House statement and Senate statement sums up the basic difference between the two chambers. In the Senate, the presiding officer would say "Under the previous order . . ." In the House, the presiding officer would say "Pursuant to the rule . . ." The two phrases have largely the same effect, but the House statement indicates that House debate and amendments are limited pursuant to a rule agreed to by the aforementioned House Rules Committee.
If you want the best possible idea of the Senate's schedule, listen to the unanimous consent agreements. Also, you can check the Senate Calendar's section on unanimous consent agreements for the day online. But if you're too busy, don't worry - that's what our blog, twitter feed, and Facebook are for :)