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Independent Fights for Committee Assignments

January 13, 1953

When the 83rd Congress convened in January of 1953, the party ratio stood at 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and one Independent. The Independent, Oregon’s Wayne Morse, had recently left the Republican Party, but he assured party leaders that he would vote with them to organize the Senate under Republican control.

On opening day, the newly Independent senator caused a stir when he arrived in the Chamber carrying a folding chair, which he intended to place in the center aisle of the Senate Chamber. Satisfied that he had gotten sufficient media attention, he abandoned that plan and returned to his old desk on the Republican side.

Morse realized that his defection would cost him his seniority on the Armed Services and Labor Committees, but he believed that his eight years of Senate seniority entitled him at least to remain on these prime committees. Consequently, he was unprepared for Majority Leader Robert Taft’s decision that he be removed altogether from the Labor Committee—his most prized assignment. Morse responded by invoking a Senate rule—unused for more than a century—requiring the entire Senate to vote on each assigned committee seat. As a result, when Republican Leader Taft and Democratic Leader Lyndon Johnson submitted their slates of committee assignments, they removed Morse’s name from both Labor and Armed Services, while leaving places for him on the District of Columbia and Public Works Committees. The fiery maverick responded with a blast against Taft’s “terroristic device to compel compliance and insure subordination.”

Believing that many senators quietly sympathized with his plight, Morse nominated himself to Armed Services and Labor. When the Senate voted on January 13, 1953, however, only seven members rallied to his side. Surprised and embarrassed, the Oregon senator branded those on whom he had counted as “gutless wonders." Angrily, he turned down New York Democratic senator Herbert Lehman’s offer of his own seat on the Labor Committee as well as what he called Leader Taft’s “garbage can” appointments.

Instead, Morse vowed to fight for a compromise that would have added him and one Republican to Labor and Armed Services. The Senate eventually rejected Morse’s “compromise” and he reluctantly took the seats he had earlier spurned. Two years later, with the Democrats back in the majority and with the promise of assignments to the Banking and Foreign Relations Committees, Morse gave up his Independent status and joined the Democratic Party.