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Republican Leader Front and Center

January 5, 1937

Photo of Charles McNary, Life Magazine

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 20th 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. Perhaps Oscar Underwood understood the inherent power of position, for soon after becoming Democratic leader he moved from the back row to the front-row seat on the center aisle, but then held onto that spot even after he resigned as leader in 1923. If leaders 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, Oscar Underwood retired, opening up the prime desk on the Democratic side, and party leader Joseph Robinson readily claimed the place. Republican leaders had to wait another decade. On January 5, 1937, elderly Kansas senator Arthur Capper agreed to relinquish the seat and Republican Leader McNary took his seat across from Robinson.

Later that year, Vice President John Nance Garner formalized 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.