The seating of the majority and minority leaders at the front row desks on either side of the center aisle of the Senate Chamber is a relatively recent tradition, dating back only to 1927 for the Democrats and 1937 for the Republicans. In the 19th century, party leadership was not yet institutionalized. Certain senators were recognized as leaders for reasons of personal popularity and political skill, not elected to an official post by their parties. Henry Clay always occupied a rear seat near the Chamber entrance. From that position he was able to signal party members as they came in before a vote, while vigorously denying the role of party floor leader.
Not until the 1890s did party caucus chairmen emerge as floor leaders, and for the most part such leaders retained regular seats. Front row desks went to senior senators in the party. For many years, the front seat on the Republican side was held by Senator Robert La Follette, Sr., of Wisconsin. Two earlier Democratic leaders, both from Alabama, John T. Morgan, in 1902, and Oscar W. Underwood, in 1921, took front row desks, each retaining that position after his service as leader had ended. Not until Underwood left the Senate did Democratic Minority Leader Joseph Robinson of Arkansas move to the front row desk, which he continued to hold as majority leader. Following Robinson's death, the desk went to his successor, Majority Leader Alben Barkley of Kentucky. The desk has been used by Democratic leaders ever since. On the Republican side, the front row desk was held by senior senators until 1937, when Minority Leader Charles McNary moved there, setting a precedent that continues today.