At the opening of the 75th Congress on January 5, 1937, Senate Republican Leader Charles McNary anticipated a difficult session. The 1936 congressional elections had produced a Senate with the lopsided party ratio of 76 Democrats to 16 Republicans. On that first day, McNary counted only one advantage—minor though it may have seemed at the time. He had become the first Republican floor leader to occupy a front-row, center-aisle seat in the Senate Chamber.
Until the early twentieth century, the Senate operated without majority and minority leaders. In 1885, political scientist Woodrow Wilson wrote, “No one is the Senator. No one may speak for his party as well as for himself; no one exercises the special trust of acknowledged leadership.”
In the Senate’s earliest decades, floor leadership came principally from the president pro tempore and chairmen of major committees.
The modern system of Senate party leadership emerged slowly in the years from the 1880s to the 1910s. During this period, both parties organized formal caucuses and selected caucus chairmen who began to assume many of the agenda-setting roles of the modern floor leader.
Struggles with increasingly powerful presidents, the crisis of World War I, and the battle over the League of Nations spurred the further evolution of Senate floor leadership. While party caucuses began formally to designate their floor leaders, they gave little thought to where those leaders should be located within the Senate Chamber. If the leaders had desired to claim the front-row, center-aisle desks that have become the modern symbol of their special status, the presence of senior members comfortably lodged in those places dashed their hopes.
Finally, in 1927, the senior member who had occupied the prime desk on the Democratic side retired and party leader Joseph Robinson readily claimed the place. Republican leaders had to wait another decade, however, before retirement opened up the corresponding seat on their side. Finally, on January 5, 1937, Republican Leader McNary took his seat across from Robinson.
Later that year, Vice President John Nance Garner announced a policy—under the Senate rule requiring the presiding officer to “recognize the Senator who shall first address him”—of giving priority recognition to the majority leader and then the minority leader before all other senators seeking to speak. By 1937, Senate floor leadership had assumed its modern form.