What Does The Senate Minority Leader Do?

Learn more about the role of the Senate Minority Leader and Senator Chuck Schumer, who currently occupies that role.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer – February 14, 2018. (Keith Mellnick/AFGE/Creative Commons License)

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer – February 14, 2018. (Keith Mellnick/AFGE/Creative Commons License)

What Is The Role Of The Senate Minority Leader?

The Senate Minority Leader is the designated leader of the political party that holds a minority of seats in the Senate. The Senate Minority Leader’s primary role is to protect the minority party’s positions, in part by negotiating with the Senate Majority Leader for fairly divided debate time between the parties. Additionally, the Senate Minority Leader is expected to make it as difficult as possible for the majority party’s agenda to succeed, while attempting to advance the minority party’s agenda when feasible.

While the vice president (or an elected “president pro tempore,” in the vice president’s absence) is the presiding officer over the Senate—with the power to break tie votes—the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, Senate committee chairs, and other ranking senators are responsible for planning the order in which Senate business is handled on a day-to-day basis.

As the minority party’s designated leader, the Senate Minority Leader must stay abreast of national and international issues, and any pending legislation. The Minority Leader advises the individual senators of the minority body regarding desirable proposed actions in response. Either the Senate Minority Leader or a designee must be present constantly on the Senate floor while business is proceeding, to ensure that the Senate Majority Leader cannot take advantage of an absence of opposition leadership to change the agreed-upon order of Senate business.

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties had official leadership in the Senate until shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. At that point, the parties came to realize that designated leaders authorized to speak definitively regarding party positions on legislative issues, could facilitate the legislative process. The Democrats first officially designated a party leader in 1920. The Republican Party selected its first leader in 1925.

How Does One Become The Senate Minority Leader?

Each party selects its leader through a secret ballot majority vote, held at an organizational conference 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. The conference chair takes charge of the party’s closed sessions. Republicans assign the two roles to two separate people.

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What Makes The Senate Minority Leader So Powerful?

Because of differences in the rules of the House and those of the Senate, the Senate minority party has more opportunity to challenge or delay the majority party’s agenda. As a matter of precedent, the Senate Minority Leader is called on to speak in floor debates second only to the Senate Majority Leader. This rule gives the Minority Leader the opportunity to establish the minority party position as well as propose desired amendments to any legislation under consideration.

The extent to which the Senate Minority Leader is empowered to define party position depends on deference from rank-and-file minority party senators. To achieve such deference, the Senate Minority Leader must use personal skills and influence to unify a body of senators with differing ideological views and constituency-based goals, fostering compromise and accommodation between individual minority party senators. Rank-and-file senators consult the Senate Minority Leader about committee assignments, participation in debate, position on particular pieces of proposed legislation, and confirmation of presidential nominees. In exchange for each minority party senator’s support of the Minority Leader, an effective Minority Leader will assist individual senators’ political goals to the extent possible.

Arguably, however, at present, the real source of the Senate Minority Leader’s power lies in numbers. Sixty votes in favor of a Senate bill are required to pass it. Thus, unless a unified majority party holds a minimum of 60 seats, a unified minority party opposing the bill can block it. Currently, the Republican party holds 53 Senate seats. Democrats and independents hold 47 Senates seats.

Who Is The Current Senate Minority Leader?

The Senate Minority Leader, from 2017 to the present, is Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Schumer has been the senior Senator from New York since 2000. As Senate Minority Leader, he speaks on behalf of not only Democratic senators, but also on behalf of two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats: Angus King (I-ME), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

List Of Senate Minority Leaders

  • Oscar W. Underwood (D-AL), 1919 – 1923
  • Joseph T. Robinson (D-AR), 1923 – 1933
  • Charles L. McNary (R-OR), 1933 – 1943
  • Wallace H. White, Jr. (R-ME), 1943 -1947
  • Alben Barkley (D-KY), 1947 – 1949
  • Kenneth S. Wherry (R-NE), 1949 – 1951
  • Styles Bridges (R-NH), 1951 – 1953
  • Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), 1953 – 1955
  • William F. Knowland (R-CA), 1955 – 1959
  • Everett M. Dirksen (R-IL), 1959-1969
  • Hugh D. Scott, Jr. (R-PA), 1969 – 1977
  • Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN), 1977 – 1981
  • Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), 1981 – 1987
  • Robert Dole (R-KS), 1987 – 1995
  • Thomas A. Daschle (D-SD), 1995 – 2001
  • Trent Lott (R-MS), 2001 – 2003
  • Thomas A. Daschle (D-SD), 2003 – 2005
  • Harry M. Reid (D-NV), 2005 – 2007
  • Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 2007 – 2015
  • Harry M. Reid (D-NV), 2015 – 2017
  • Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), 2017 – 2021

The Rantt Rundown

While it is generally acknowledged that Senate Majority and Minority Leaders were originally expected to work cooperatively to schedule matters for Senate floor consideration and efficiently move bills forward to enactment, the current Senate reflects a deep ideological divide. This, and the number of seats held by the majority and minority sides, has led to a state of gridlock in which neither party can push through its agenda. This general stalemate in the Senate effectively prevents either side from riding roughshod over the other. However, in times of national crisis, when quick action is required, the need to break the habitual stalemate may result in days of undesirable and costly delay.

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