One of the most contentious foreign policy debates in U.S. history ended in 1978 when the Senate approved the Panama Canal treaties. Gaining that consent was truly a daunting task. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd called it his “trial by fire,” and readily acknowledged that success came only with the able assistance of the minority leader, Howard Baker.
The Senate approved the original Panama Canal treaty in 1903, granting canal rights to the U.S. in exchange for financial support and military protection for Panama. Protests over control of the canal soon arose, however, prompting new treaties in 1936 and 1955, and negotiations continued through each presidential administration. Finally, on September 7, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed two treaties (a neutrality treaty and a canal treaty) to return control of the canal to Panama.
When the agreement arrived for advice and consent, Senator Byrd quickly assessed its chances. “You’re not going to get a treaty without me,” he told the president, “and you’re not going to get a treaty without Senator Baker.” Senate opposition was strong but even more vexing was the fact that the public overwhelmingly opposed the treaties. Both Senate leaders understood that gaining votes from their colleagues required a shift in public opinion. “What you have to understand,” Byrd explained, “is that any senator voting for these treaties will pay a high political price.” A “badge of courage” could become “the dents in your armor.” Howard Baker, whose initial reaction to the treaties was, “Why now, and why me?” had much at stake, including his reelection in 1978 and his presidential aspirations for 1980. Baker’s support for the treaties was politically risky, but his leadership proved crucial to success.
When the Foreign Relations Committee held hearings in the fall of '77, the two leaders persuaded committee members, with some difficulty, to report the treaties to the floor without amendment. This strategy allowed Byrd and Baker to shape the debate with “leadership amendments” designed to settle disputes while providing senators with political cover. It was a delicate balancing act, but it paid off. The leadership amendments gained 76 co-sponsors. As formal debate began on Feb 8, 1978, Howard Baker worried that media coverage would fail to explain the complicated debate to a still skeptical public. He suggested gavel-to-gavel TV coverage, but that idea was rejected. Instead, the two leaders compromised on radio coverage—the first-ever live broadcast of Senate floor debate informed the public.
In March the Senate passed the neutrality agreement and began debate on the principal treaty. Scores of amendments and reservations were suggested, but the most problematic proposal came from Arizona senator Dennis DeConcini. He called for use of military force if necessary to keep the canal open. Carter accepted the idea, but the Panamanian authorities rejected this ploy as a way to reintroduce perpetuity of U.S. control. Quickly, the two Senate leaders orchestrated a series of emergency meetings to produce more acceptable language.
Finally, on April 18, 1978, after nine long weeks of debate, the Senate approved the Panama Canal Treaty. Sixteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats to approve the treaty with 68 votes, just one vote more than the required two-thirds majority. That achievement was due, in good part, to the determined leadership of Robert Byrd, but even Senator Byrd attributed success to Baker’s skilled and risky negotiations. Many years later, recalling the political tightrope of the debate, Byrd summed it up this way: “Courage? That’s Howard Baker and the Panama Canal.”