Skip Content
U.S. Flag
  
  

The Modern Senate: 1964-Present


This collection of brief essays describes important events and personalities in Senate history, and highlights recurring themes in the Senate's institutional development during the modern era of the Senate, 1964 to the present (click on title for full story).

Harry Truman Visits the Senate
May 8, 1964
Harry Truman often said the happiest years of his life were spent in the United States Senate. It is not surprising, therefore, that he chose to celebrate his 80th birthday with a return visit.


Civil Rights Filibuster Ended
June 10, 1964
Before the Senate could vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it first had to end the filibuster that delayed that vote. After weeks of careful organizing, head counting, and skillful persuasion, the bill's supporters had enough votes to achieve cloture, end debate, and force a vote on one of the most important bills of the 20th century.


The Senate's Taj Mahal
June 25, 1964
Today, the U.S. Capitol has many rooms and spaces named after respected senators. The tradition of named spaces dates back to 1964, when room S-211, informally known as the "Taj Mahal," became the Lyndon B. Johnson Room.


Senators Wrestle to Settle Nomination
July 9, 1964
When Senator Strom Thurmond attempted to prevent the Commerce Committee from obtaining a quorum so it could vote on a nomination, Ralph Yarborough jovially tried to talk him out of it. In a similarly light-hearted manner, Thurmond challenged Yarborough to a wrestling match in which the winner would have his way.


Presiding Officers
July 15, 1965
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Senate party officials had experienced difficulty in recruiting temporary presiding officers for late-afternoon and evening sessions of the Senate. This situation came to a dramatic head on the evening of July 15, 1965, during one of Senator Wayne Morse's late afternoon floor speeches.


Medicare Signed into Law
July 30, 1965
On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, to sign Medicare into law. His gesture drew attention to the 20 years it had taken Congress to enact government health insurance for senior citizens after Truman had proposed it. In fact, Medicare's history dated back even further.


The Senate Passes the Voting Rights Act
August 4, 1965
On August 4, 1965, the U.S. Senate passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The long-delayed issue of voting rights had come to the forefront because of a voter registration drive launched by civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama. The "outrage of Selma" had spurred the federal government's response, and the efforts of a bipartisan group on the Senate Judiciary Committee helped ensure that the previously disenfranchised would gain political equality through the power of the ballot.


An Unintended Legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
August 6, 1965
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson came to the Capitol to sign the Voting Rights Act. Following a ceremony in the Rotunda, the president, congressional leaders, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and others crowded into the President's Room near the Senate Chamber for the actual signing.


Opposition Response to the State of the Union Address
January 17, 1966
When President Lyndon B. Johnson scheduled his State of the Union address for prime time in 1965, the importance of his effort was not lost on members of Congress—particularly Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. The following year, Dirksen and House Minority Leader Gerald Ford recorded a 30-minute televised rebuttal to the president's speech that aired several days later. Today, thanks to the efforts of Dirksen and Ford, the opposition response is anticipated and discussed almost as much as the president's speech.


Vietnam Hearings
January 24, 1966
On January 24, 1966, Secretary of State Dean Rusk appeared before a closed hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His testimony convinced committee chairman J. William Fulbright that the administration of President Lyndon Johnson was blinded by its "anticommunist assumptions." Fulbright launched a high-profile series of widely televised public "educational" hearings on the Vietnam War in February 1966.


The Clean Waters Restoration Act Signed into Law
November 3, 1966
On November 3, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Clean Waters Restoration Act, which provided federal funds for the construction of sewage treatment plants. Thanks in large part to Maine senator Edmund Muskie, this act, and others that followed over the next decade, had a significant impact in reducing pollution and restoring rivers like the Potomac.


The "Bulldog" and the Genocide Treaty
January 11, 1967
During his 32 years in the U.S. Senate, William Proxmire earned a number of nicknames: maverick, tightwad, iconoclast. Perhaps the one that suits him best is "bulldog." Proxmire "clamps his prominent jaws hard on the edge of an issue," wrote a reporter, "and simply refuses to let go…." It was Proxmire's dogged support for the Genocide Treaty that eventually led to its approval, an achievement 19 years in the making.


"Do not decimate this little subcommittee"
February 17, 1967
Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois, known for his mellifluous voice and oratorical skills, frequently entertained and enlightened his Senate colleagues. One day in 1967, he used those skills to defend an obscure little subcommittee.


George Murphy and the Candy Desk
1968
In 1968 California senator George Murphy moved to a desk in the back row on the Republican side of the Senate Chamber. Possessing a sweet tooth, he always kept candy in his desk and invited his colleagues to help themselves to the candy supply. Thanks to Senator Murphy, a new tradition—the "candy desk"—was born, but what about the man behind the tradition?


Carl Hayden Retires
January 3, 1969
Thirty-four-year-old Carl Hayden arrived on Capitol Hill in 1912 as Arizona's first member in the House of Representatives. He retired as that state's senior senator on January 3, 1969, at the age of 91. Hayden spent 56 consecutive years in Congress, including 42 in the Senate, for a total of 20,773 days.


Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen Dies
September 7, 1969
Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen, arguably the most effective minority leader in Senate history, died on September 7, 1969. More than just a skillful legislator, Dirksen personified the U.S. Senate in the 1960s, and even became a recording star.


Dirksen's Death Prompts Leadership Race
September 24, 1969
The Senate lost one of its greatest leaders on September 7, 1969—Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. The Republican leader's death left quite a vacuum. Within hours, speculation focused on a successor. "The cast is big," commented one observer, "the actors are skilled if a little inclined to bombast; the plot is seasoned with elements of intrigue, comedy, and suspense in a mystery drama" entitled, "After Dirksen, Who?"


Gaylord Nelson Promotes the First Earth Day
April 22, 1970
United States senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) helped launch the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. An astonishing success, the first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated by some 20 million Americans on 2,000 college campuses, at 10,000 primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities.


Loud and Clear
January 25, 1971
On January 25, 1971, the Senate Chamber's current voice amplification system began operation, thus ending over 100 years of the Chamber's poor acoustics. Soon after members moved into the new Chamber in January 1859, they began to complain about their difficulty in hearing floor proceedings. Over the years, as the nation grew, additional senators exacerbated the noise problem, and even a 1949–50 renovation project failed to help. Relief finally came in 1971.


First Female Pages Appointed
May 13, 1971
The tradition of Senate pages dates back to the 1820s, when the Senate began hiring boys to attend the Senate Chamber, run errands, and deliver messages. Not until 1971, however, did any girls follow that path. On May 13, 1971, the Senate finally agreed to appoint its first female pages.


Give Us a (Summer) Break!
August 6, 1971
Repeatedly, Senator Gale McGee called for a summer recess, and each time the idea split the Senate along generational lines. Older senators preferred the traditional system of doing business—come to Washington in January, complete business by summer, and go home. But younger senators, facing the realities of the modern Senate, wanted a designated six-week summer recess to allow them to plan family vacations and reconnect with their constituency. Finally, on August 6, 1971, as mandated by the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, the Senate began its first official August recess.


The Senate Passes the Equal Rights Amendment
March 22, 1972
The Equal Rights Amendment has been a perennial topic in Congress since 1923, but not until 1972 did both houses of Congress approve the ERA with a constitutionally required two-thirds majority. After the bill passed the House in 1971 with a seven-year enacting clause provision attached, Indiana senator Birch Bayh used his position as Judiciary subcommittee chairman to adopt the House bill as a substitute amendment to an existing Senate joint resolution. The bill faced considerable opposition, however, from one powerful member.


Senate Office Buildings Named
October 11, 1972
Senator Harry Truman liked to tell his constituents to send his mail to "Harry Truman, S.O.B., Washington." Undoubtedly, Truman had great fun with this, but "S.O.B." really stood for Senate Office Building. When a second building opened, it became the "New S.O.B.," distinguished from the "Old S.O.B." of Truman's days. When the Senate opened its third building, however, members decided it was time for new labels.


Wayne Morse
July 22, 1974
Former Oregon Senator Wayne Morse died on July 22,1974. His admirers knew him as "The Tiger in the Senate." His many enemies, including five presidents, called him a lot worse. Today he is remembered as a gifted lawmaker and principled maverick who thrived on controversy.


First Television Broadcast from the Senate Chamber
December 19, 1974
The first television broadcast from the Senate Chamber occurred at 10:00 p.m. on December 19, 1974. That broadcast had nothing to do with C-SPAN, which did not yet exist, but it had everything to do with the scandals that rocked the Nixon administration and resulted in the resignations of both the vice president and the president.


Senate Reform Commission
July 29, 1975
Soon after he entered the Senate early in 1975, Iowa Democrat John Culver concluded that the upper house was in danger of becoming dysfunctional. On July 29, 1975, in response to Senator Culver's widely shared concerns, the Senate authorized the first-ever review of its administrative and legislative operations by an outside panel. Today, the Culver/Hughes Commission retains its status as the only outside body ever invited to review the Senate's internal operations.


Closest Election in Senate History
September 16, 1975
The closest election in Senate history was decided on September 16, 1975. The 1974 New Hampshire race for an open seat that pitted Republican Louis Wyman against Democrat John Durkin.


Resolving Contested Elections
March 4, 1976
In the early months of 1975, the Senate struggled to resolve two contested elections. In New Hampshire, Republican Louis Wyman claimed a 355-vote margin over Democrat John Durkin. The second protracted 1975 contest involved the Oklahoma seat to which Republican Henry Bellmon was seeking reelection.


The Old Senate Chamber Restored
June 16, 1976
After the Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, the Supreme Court took up residence in the old chamber until 1935, when it moved to its permanent building. The Senate and House then agreed to restore the room to its 1850s elegance. Despite this agreement, decades passed with no action. Finally, the Old Senate Chamber restoration project concluded with a festive dedication ceremony on June 16, 1976.


Senate Leaders and the Panama Canal Treaties
March 21, 1980
On March 21, 1980, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd launched a unique historical project—an unprecedented series of addresses on the Senate's history and operations. These essays, later revised and published, became the centerpiece of the Senate's 1989 bicentennial commemoration.


"Byrd's History"
March 21, 1980
On March 21, 1980, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd launched a unique historical project—an unprecedented series of addresses on the Senate's history and operations. These essays, later revised and published, became the centerpiece of the Senate's 1989 bicentennial commemoration.


William Proxmire Keeps the Senate in Session Overnight
September 28, 1981
Americans often think of a filibuster as someone holding the Senate floor for hours in order to keep a bill from passing. In fact, filibusters include many strategies to block action. In the modern Senate, extraordinarily long speeches have been aimed at drawing attention to an issue rather than blocking legislative action. Such was the case on September 28, 1981, when Wisconsin senator William Proxmire rose to deliver what would become one of the longest speeches in Senate history.


Hart Building Opens Under Protest
November 22, 1982
Recognizing the looming need for more Senate working space, Congress in 1972 authorized construction of a third office building. In 1976, as workers broke ground for the third facility, senators agreed to name it after Michigan's Philip A. Hart, a deeply respected colleague who was then in his final struggle with cancer. When the building's office suites for 50 senators became ready in November 1982, only a bold few senators chose to risk public scorn by moving there.


Bomb Explodes in Capitol
November 7, 1983
On November 7, 1983, at 10:58 p.m., a thunderous explosion tore through the second floor of the Capitol's north wing. Fortunately, owing to the late hour, the adjacent halls were virtually deserted. Although the explosion caused no structural damage to the Capitol, it shattered mirrors, chandeliers, and furniture. Officials calculated damages of $250,000.


Live Television from the Senate Chamber
June 2, 1986
By early 1986, Majority Leader Bob Dole and Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd worried that the lack of television coverage was transforming the Senate into the nation's forgotten legislative body. House members were becoming far more visible than senators to their constituents. The two leaders eventually engineered a vote in which the Senate agreed to a three-month trial period, with live national coverage to begin on June 2, 1986. Within weeks, the Senate voted to make this coverage permanent.


"Mountains and Clouds" Dedicated
May 5, 1987
The monumental sculpture, entitled Mountains and Clouds, occupies the nine-story atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building. Rising 51 feet, the mountains are formed from 36 tons of sheet steel painted black. Until 2016, a 75-foot-wide black mobile, representing clouds, was suspended above this stabile. The Senate dedicated Mountains and Clouds on May 5, 1987.


The Senate Compels Attendance to End a Filibuster
February 24, 1988
SOn February 23, 1988, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd decided the time had come to end a filibuster on Senate campaign finance reform. The leader moved to instruct the sergeant at arms to arrest the absentees. Senate Sergeant at Arms Henry Guigni, a former vice squad policeman, led a "posse of six Capitol police officers" in a post-midnight search of members' hideaway offices and Senate office building suites.


The Senate Celebrates 200 Years
April 6, 1989
In the early 1980s, Senate leaders began to think ahead to the body's forthcoming 200th anniversary in 1989. Wishing to maximize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to focus national attention on the Senate's history, traditions, and constitutional role, floor leaders Howard Baker and Robert C. Byrd arranged for the establishment of a special 15-member Study Group on the Commemoration of the Senate Bicentenary.


"Year of the Woman"
November 3, 1992
In the elections of November 1992, four women were elected to the United States Senate. Never before had this happened in a single election year. Headline writers hailed "The Year of the Woman."


Senate Impeachment Trial Powers Upheld
January 13, 1993
What is the meaning of the verb "to try?" In 1992, justices of the U.S. Supreme Court consulted a shelf-full of dictionaries in search of a precise answer. They sought to settle a case initiated by a federal district judge, who in 1989 had been impeached by the House of Representatives and removed from office by the Senate. Imprisoned on a conviction for lying to a grand jury, Judge Walter Nixon disputed the Senate's interpretation of "try" as it exercised its exclusive constitutional power to "to try all impeachments."


Delayed Lecture
March 24, 1998
In 1998 Majority Leader Trent Lott introduced his "Leader's Lecture Series," which would present observations of nine former Senate party leaders and vice presidents of the United States. The first speaker was 95-year-old Mike Mansfield who took the lectern to recall lessons learned during his record-setting tenure as leader, from 1961 to 1977. With the Montana Democrat's opening remarks, it became clear to the audience that the evening would bring an added historical treat.


The Capitol Building as a Target
September 11, 2001
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the Capitol once again became the target of foreign enemies. As two hijacked commercial airplanes thundered into the twin towers of New York City's World Trade Center, and another flew into the Pentagon, a fourth plane—through the heroic struggle of its passengers—missed its intended target and crashed into a Pennsylvania field southeast of Pittsburgh. Subsequent investigations by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks discovered a high probability that the Capitol was the intended target of the Flight 93 hijackers.


New Seniority Record
November 7, 2002
In 2002, the Senate set a new record for member seniority. For the first time in history, the Senate included three incumbent members who have served 40 or more years—Senators Strom Thurmond, Robert C. Byrd, and Edward Kennedy. The start of the 108th Congress also saw a Senate with three 40-year veterans: Senators Byrd, Kennedy, and Daniel Inouye.


The Unforgettable 107th Congress
November 22, 2002
Over the course of its 656 days in session, from January 3, 2001, to November 22, 2002, the 107th Congress proved to be, in the title of a 2003 memoir by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, "Like No Other Time."


"Lady Freedom Among Us"
December 2, 2008
A magnificent 19-foot-tall plaster statue rises in the Capitol Visitor Center's Emancipation Hall. This Statue of Freedom looks so fresh that a visitor might think it was created for just that space. In fact, it is 150 years old.