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Hold

Definition: An informal practice by which a Senator informs his or her floor leader that he or she does not wish a particular bill or other measure to reach the floor for consideration. The Majority Leader need not follow the Senator’s wishes, but is on notice that the opposing Senator may filibuster any motion to proceed to consider the measure.

History: The hold is an informal custom of the Senate and not a part of the formalized rules. The Congressional Research Service notes that “the origins of the practice are unclear and lost in the mists of history,” but “probably emerged from features long associated with the Senate, such as its emphasis on minority and individual interests, the informality and flexibility of its procedures, and a legislative culture that encourages accommodation for individual Senators’ policy and personal goals.” Since the 1970s, however, the practice has been widely used by Senators to push their policy goals and extract concessions.

How it Works: The Senate usually proceeds to its business by a series of unanimous consent agreements. A hold is essentially a threat by a member to his or her party leader that the senator intends to object to unanimous consent and use parliamentary procedures to stall consideration of a piece of legislation or a nomination if it is brought to the floor. The Majority Leader can still place the item on the Senate calendar, but given the amount of business that must be considered in a relatively small number of working days, the threat of extended debate is usually enough to keep the item off the agenda, at least temporarily. Oftentimes the senator placing the hold will remove the hold if certain concessions are made. In fact, it is now not uncommon for members to place holds on bills they don’t necessarily oppose, simply as a means of negotiating another point or issue. While some senators make it publicly known that they have placed a hold on a bill or nomination, holds are more often done in secret, earning them the nickname of the “silent filibuster.”