As majority leader of the Senate from 1937 to 1947, Alben W. Barkley (1877–1956) played an important role in the passage of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s NEW DEAL legislation. Barkley was a supporter of Roosevelt, but not blindly loyal to him and on occasion differed strongly and publicly from the president.
Barkley began his career in Congress in 1912, when he was elected as a Democrat to represent Kentucky’s First District. After seven terms in the House of Representatives, he was elected to the Senate in 1926, where he spent the remainder of his congressional career.
In 1937, upon the death of Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, Barkley waged a hard-fought campaign to succeed him. He defeated his rival for the post, Pat Harrison of Mississippi, by a narrow margin—just one vote. His success was attributed to a perception that Roosevelt favored his candidacy. The contest brought to the surface deep rifts in the party between conservative southerners and New Deal Democrats. Once revealed, the division among the Senate Democrats contributed to the defeat of some of Roosevelt’s domestic initiatives—most notably, his attempt to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court, which became known as the Court-packing scheme to reverse many decisions that had gone against New Deal legislation.
As majority leader, Barkley loyally supported Roosevelt’s policies and served as a spokesperson for the president in his relations with Congress. In fall 1938, at Roosevelt’s request, Barkley agreed to punish senators who worked to defeat the president’s Court-packing scheme.
Barkley, however, forcefully opposed Roosevelt’s unprecedented veto of a tax bill in 1944. He spoke against the president on the floor of the Senate, calling the veto “a calculated and deliberate assault upon the legislative integrity of every member of Congress.” He said, “Other members of Congress may do as they please, but as for me, I do not propose to take this unjustifiable assault lying down . . . . I dare say that during the last seven years of tenure as majority leader, I have carried the flag over rougher territory than ever traversed by any previous majority leader. Sometimes I have carried it with little help from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.” Barkley promptly resigned as majority leader and was just as promptly reelected by a unanimous vote of the Senate Democrats.
In 1948 President Harry S. Truman persuaded Barkley to leave the Senate and run for election as his vice president. The ticket won, and Barkley became a popular public figure, known affectionately as “the Veep.” After completing one term as vice president, Barkley was reelected to the Senate in 1954. A campaigner to the end, he died while making a political speech in 1956.
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