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Majority Leader Resigns


February 24, 1944

Photo of Alben Barkley of Kentucky

Never before had a Senate majority leader resigned his office in disgust at the actions of a president of his own party. In his first seven years as Democratic majority leader, Kentucky's Alben Barkley had earned a reputation among his colleagues for his loyalty to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt, after all, who had twisted enough Democratic senatorial arms in 1937 to ensure Barkley's election to that post—by a margin of just one vote.

In January 1944, Roosevelt sent to Congress draft legislation for a $10 billion increase in taxes to help pay the cost of American involvement in World War II. When the bill emerged from the Senate Finance Committee, however, it included only 20 percent of what the president had requested. Concluding that the scaled-back authorization was about all that the Senate was likely to pass, Majority Leader Barkley met twice with the president to plead that he approve the measure. Ignoring his party's Senate leader, Roosevelt vetoed the bill, blasting its inadequate funding and its language "which not even a dictionary or thesaurus can make clear."

In a "cold fury," Barkley announced that he planned to make a speech "without regard for the political consequences." In that speech, delivered the following day before a packed chamber with most senators at their desks, he denounced the president for his "deliberate and unjustified misstatements," which placed on Congress "the blame for universal dissatisfaction with tax complexities." Barkley branded the president's statement that the bill provided "relief not for the needy, but for the greedy" a "calculated and deliberate assault upon the legislative integrity of every Member of Congress."

On the following morning, Barkley convened the Democratic caucus in its Russell Building meeting room. Tears streaming down his face, he resigned as party leader and left the conference. Moments later, Texas Senator Tom Connally burst from the room, booming, "Make way for liberty! Make way for liberty!" With that, he led a jovial delegation of senators down the hall to Barkley's office to inform him of his unanimous reelection. As one Democratic senator commented, "Previously, he spoke to us for the president; now he speaks for us to the president."

Two days later, the Senate joined the House in overriding the president's veto. When the Democratic Convention met that summer, Barkley's break with the president probably cost him the vice-presidential nomination and, with Roosevelt's death, the presidency.


Reference Items:

Drury, Allen.  A Senate Journal: 1943-1945.  New York: DA Capo Press, 1963.