What Does The Senate Majority Leader Do?

Learn more about the role of the Senate Majority Leader and Senator Mitch McConnell, who currently occupies that role.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ/Creative Commons)

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ/Creative Commons)

What Is The Role Of The Senate Majority Leader?

The Senate Majority Leader is the leader and chief strategist of the political party that currently holds the majority in the Senate. From choosing which bills to vote on to the confirmation of presidential appointees, judges, and Supreme Court Justices, the Senate Majority Leader is a powerful figure. The presiding officer over the Senate is the vice president, or an elected “president pro tempore” in the vice president’s absence. These presiding officers have the power to break tie votes.

The Senate Majority Leader works on a day-to-day basis with Senate committee chairs, the Senate Minority Leader, and other ranking senators to plan the order in which business will be handled on the Senate floor, and to open daily proceedings. Majority and minority leaders attempt to agree on time limits that fairly divide debate time between the parties. Ideally, this cooperative system keeps legislative efforts moving while protecting each party’s positions.

The Senate Majority Leader holds a position of influence and is intended to use negotiation skills and accommodation of the views of the opposing party to keep proposed bills moving forward to enactment. Lyndon Johnson, as Senate Majority Leader in the 1950’s, opined that “the power of persuasion” was the greatest power a Majority Leader held. Both Senate Majority and Minority leaders meet regularly with the president as well as with House leaders. The Senate Majority Leader in many ways has less official power than the Speaker of the House.

In some matters, however, the Senate Majority Leader exercises a unique degree of influence that is not available to anyone in the House. Only the Senate can approve treaties, and confirm presidential cabinet and judicial nominations. These issues make the Majority Leader’s responsiveness to presidential preference crucial in shaping foreign policy, cabinet composition, and of whom the federal judiciary is comprised.

It may surprise you to know that there is no Constitutionally established position of Senate Majority Leader. Rather, over time Democrats and Republicans realized that official leaders would facilitate the legislative process, and be able to speak definitively for their respective parties regarding their positions on political questions of the day. In 1920, the Democrats officially designated a party leader. The Republicans followed by selecting a leader in 1925.

How Does One Become The Senate Majority Leader?

Each party selects its leader through a secret-ballot vote, which is held at an organizational meeting prior to the start of each new Congress. Democrats assign a dual role of floor leader as well as party conference chair to their designated leader. Republicans assign the two roles to two separate people.

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What Makes The Senate Majority Leader So Powerful?

Senate Majority Leaders have run the Senate by taking part in crafting major bills, scheduling when any bill might get Senate floor consideration, setting the Senate’s agenda, and controlling senators’ ability to offer amendments. Former Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) habitually controlled whether amendments were allowed to be offered to particular bills. Current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said that he alone decides what bills are presented for Senate floor consideration—and which are not. Rank-and-file senators appear to simply defer to their party leaders. It is not mandatory that they do so. Rather, they are declining to exercise power and influence they have every right to use.

The Majority Leader also has the ability to cut off debate, and table the matter under discussion—thus having the capacity to overcome a filibuster—through the mechanism of filing for cloture: setting a vote to end debate. In recent years, Senate Majority Leaders have with increasing frequency moved a measure to be considered on the floor, then immediately filed for cloture and withdrawn the motion to proceed for consideration, allowing other business to be taken up on the Senate floor instead. In this manner, the Majority Leader can keep particular issues from being scheduled for debate indefinitely, regardless of bipartisan support for bills or overwhelming support by the American people.

The Senate’s role in confirming presidential nominees is constitutionally mandated under Article II, § 2, which provides that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint high government officials….” Prior to the making of a nomination, candidates are vetted by the FBI, IRS, Office of Government Ethics, and an ethics official from the agency to which the nominee would be assigned. The president then provides a written nomination to the Senate.

It has become routine for such nominations to be referred to the Senate committees having jurisdiction over the department or agency to which the nominee would be assigned. Each committee may conduct its own investigation of a nominee and may hold an open hearing. The committee then reports favorably, unfavorably, or without recommendation on the nomination in question. Occasionally, committees may also simply make no report at all. Supreme Court nominees and other high-level officials may receive close scrutiny, but in reality, 98% to 99% of presidential appointees are confirmed—including regulatory commission members, ambassadors, U.S. attorneys and marshals, and federal judges.

The Senate typically confirms cabinet members and other key leaders without debate, following the precept that presidents should be free to choose their closest advisors. Additionally, the ease with which presidential nominations may be confirmed by the Senate’s majority party was greatly expanded by a rule change spearheaded by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in 2013. Under the new rule, only a simple Senate majority is required to confirm any presidential nominee other than a nominee for Supreme Court Justice. With only a simple majority required, and a majority party deferring to the leadership of the Senate Majority Leader, confirmation of presidential appointments is more or less guaranteed.

In the beginning, the Senate Majority Leader’s “right of first recognition”—the right to be called on first in any debate—was “the most potent weapon in the Majority Leader’s arsenal,” according to former Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd. The right of first recognition allows Majority Leaders to offer amendments, substitute language, and make motions to reconsider prior to any other senator.

Who Is The Current Senate Majority Leader?

The Senate Majority Leader beginning in 2015, and continuing to the present, is Mitch McConnell (R-KY). He has been frequently criticized for creating a stranglehold that is preventing bills from being considered on the Senate floor. However, it is also absolutely clear that he is very responsive to the president’s preferences.

List Of Senate Majority Leaders

  • Charles Curtis (R-KS) 1925 – 1929
  • James E. Watson (R-IN) 1929 – 1933
  • Joseph T. Robinson (D-AR) 1933 – July 14, 1937
  • Alben W. Barkley (D-KY) July 22, 1937 – 1947
  • Wallace H. White Jr. (R-ME) 1947 – 1949
  • Scott W. Lucas (D-IL) 1949 – 1951
  • Ernest W. McFarland (D-AZ) 1951 -1953
  • Robert A. Taft (R-CA) August 4, 1953 – 1955
  • Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX) 1955 – 1961
  • Mike Mansfield (D-MT) 1961 – 1977
  • Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) 1977 – 1981
  • Howard H. Baker (R-TN) 1981 -1985
  • Robert H. Dole (R-KS) 1985 – 1987
  • Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) 1987-1989
  • George J. Mitchell (D-ME) 1989 -1995
  • Robert H. Dole (R-KS) 1995 – June 11, 1996
  • Trent Lott (R-MS) June 12, 1996 – 2001
  • Thomas A. Daschle (D-SD) 2001 – 2003
  • William H. Frist (R-TN) 2003 – 2007
  • Harry M. Reid (D-NV) 2007 – 2015
  • Mitch McConnell (R-KY) 2015 – Present

The Rantt Rundown

In the 1920s, both Democrat and Republican parties realized that their legislative work could be accomplished more efficiently if they chose leaders who could speak definitively regarding their respective positions on proposed legislation. The original intent was for majority and minority party leaders to work cooperatively to schedule matters for Senate floor consideration and move bills forward to enactment. However, less than a century later, Senate Majority Leaders have begun to assert more control over—and expect more deference from—their senatorial party members.

Rather than cooperating with the minority party, recent Senate Majority Leaders have created a legislative bottleneck, in which even bills that have tremendous support never make it onto the Senate floor for debate. Rank-and-file senators are not required to defer to their party leaders: it has simply happened, The result has been increasing frustration with a bicameral legislature where attempts to progress legislature and bills proposed by the House are stymied by the Senate Majority Leader so that nothing is actually done.

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Rantt 101 // Congress / Government / Mitch McConnell / Republican Party