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About Parties and Leadership

Members of the Senate belonging to the two major political parties are organized into party conferences. The conferences (also referred to as caucuses) and their leaders play an important role in the daily functions of the Senate, including setting legislative agendas, organizing committees, and determining how action proceeds on the Senate floor. When senators represent third parties (examples include the Populist Party of the 1890s and the Farmer-Labor Party of the mid-to-late 20th century) or serve as Independents, they typically work within the two established party conferences to gain committee assignments or manage legislation.

The framers of the Constitution did not envision the creation of political parties, but parties quickly emerged. In the 1790s, members of the Senate divided into two factions, one that supported President George Washington's administration, known as the Federalists, and one that opposed it, known as the Democratic Republicans. During the early 19th century, these original parties collapsed or fractured, and by the 1830s two national parties—the Whigs and the Democrats—had structured American political action down to the local level and influenced the election of U.S. senators by state legislatures. When the Whig Party fell apart over the issue of slavery in the 1850s, the Republican Party was created, establishing the modern two-party system of Republicans and Democrats.

Party leadership emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when both party conferences in the Senate elected leaders to speak for their members, coordinate action on the Senate floor, and work with the executive branch on policy priorities when in the same party as the president. To address their members' political and policy goals, the parties created steering committees, campaign committees, and policy committees. By the 21st century, senators of both party conferences granted their leaders a great deal of control over the Senate's agenda.