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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).


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

October 1, 1968

Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement just in time to allow outgoing President Lyndon Johnson to name his successor. Johnson nominated his long-time confidant, Associate Justice Abe Fortas. The controversial nomination sparked a heated Senate confirmation debate and the first-ever filibuster to block a Supreme Court nomination.

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.

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.

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?”

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 twenty million Americans on two thousand college campuses, at ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and in hundreds of communities.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

March 28, 1973

On March 28, 1973, the Senate held its first hearing on the Watergate break-in. That nearly five-hour meeting generated so many leaks to the media that committee leaders decided to conduct all future hearings in public session.

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.

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.

January 27, 1975

Late in 1974, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed that the CIA was not only destabilizing foreign governments, but was also conducting illegal intelligence operations against thousands of American citizens. On January 27, 1975, an aroused Senate voted overwhelmingly to establish a special 11-member investigating body along the lines of the recently concluded Watergate Committee.  Under the chairmanship of Idaho Senator Frank Church, with Texas Senator John Tower as vice-chairman, the select committee was given 12 months and 150 staffers to complete its work.

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.

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.

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.

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.

April 18, 1978

One of the most contentious foreign policy debates in U.S. history ended in 1978 when the Senate approved the Panama Canal treaties. Gaining that consent was truly a daunting task. Senate majority leader Robert Byrd called it his “trial by fire,” and readily acknowledged that success came only with the able assistance of the minority leader, Howard Baker.

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.

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’s Senator William Proxmire rose to deliver what would become one of the longest speeches in Senate history.

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.

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.

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.

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.

February 24, 1988

On 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.

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.

October 5, 1992

In a real-life imitation of Hollywood classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," New York senator Alfonse D’Amato tried to save a typewriter factory. On October 5, 1992, for the first time since the Senate inaugurated gavel-to-gavel television coverage of its floor proceedings in 1986, television viewers had the opportunity to watch a senator conduct an old-fashioned filibuster—a dusk-to-dawn talkathon.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.