The Senate Republican Conference is the formal organization of the Republican Senators in the United States Senate, who currently number 51. Over the last century, the mission of the Conference has expanded and been shaped as a means of informing the media of the opinions and activities of Senate Republicans. Today the Senate Republican Conference assists Republican Senators by providing a full range of communications services including graphics, radio, television, and the Internet. Its current Chairman is Senator John Thune, and its Vice Chairman is currently Senator Roy Blunt.
Effective with the start of the 115th Congress, the conference leadership is as follows:
The Republican Conference of the United States Senate is a descendant of the early American party caucus that decided party policies, approved appointees, and selected candidates. The meetings were private, and early records of the deliberations do not exist. Senate Republicans began taking formal minutes only in 1911, and they began referring to their organization as the "conference" in 1913. An early outgrowth of the effort to enhance party unity was the creation, in 1874, of a Steering Committee to prepare a legislative schedule for consideration by the Conference. The Committee became a permanent part of the Republican organization.
The Steering Committee, formalized Republican "leadership" in the 19th century was minimal; most legislative guidance came from powerful committee chairmen managing particular bills. The Conference began to acquire significance, however, with the election of Senator William B. Allison of Iowa as Chairman in 1897, and during the terms of successors such as Senator Orville H. Platt of Connecticut and Senator Nelson W. Aldrich of Rhode Island. The Chairman in 1915, Senator Jacob H. Gallinger of New Hampshire, who two years earlier had elected a whip to maintain a quorum to conduct Senate business. Senator James W. Wadsworth, Jr. of New York was elected both conference secretary and whip; a week later the responsibilities were divided between Senator Wadsworth as Secretary and Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas, who was elected whip.
The Conference continued to meet in private to assure confidentiality and candor. This practice was suspended only once, on May 27, 1919, when the Conference reaffirmed its commitment to the seniority system for choosing committee chairmen by electing Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania as Chairman of the Finance Committee over objections from Progressive Republican insurgents. (This was apparently the only open party conference in the history of the Senate.)
During this period, the Chairman also served as informal floor leader. One reason for the lack of a formal post was the fact that committee chairmen usually took responsibility to move to proceed to the consideration of measures reported by their respective committees and managed the legislation on the floor. The first recorded Conference election of a formal floor leader was held March 5, 1925, when the conference chairman, Senator Curtis of Kansas, was unanimously chosen to serve in both posts.
Throughout the 1920s, when Republicans held the Senate majority, the Conference met chiefly at the beginning of each session to make committee assignments; for the remainder of the session, Members were notified of the order of business by mail. This slow pace continued through the 1930s, when Republican Senators were so few that they dispensed with a permanent whip, and the conference chairman and floor leader, Senator Charles L. McNary of Oregon, appointed Senators to serve as whip on particular pieces of legislation.
Senator McNary died in 1944, and the posts of conference chairman and floor leader were separated in 1945. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan became Chairman and Senator Wallace H. White, Jr., of Maine became floor leader. This separation has continued to be one of the chief differences between the Republican and Democratic Conferences, since the floor leader of the Democrats has continued to serve as their Conference Chairman.
In 1944, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, still in his first term, persuaded Republicans to revive their Steering Committee, and he became its Chairman. In 1946, it became the Republican Policy Committee under legislation appropriating equal funds for majority and minority parties (a separate Steering Committee was created in 1974 but its operations are funded by member dues, not by Congress). Until the mid-1970s the staffs of the Conference and Policy Committee were housed together under a single staff director who administered their budgets jointly. Staff separation was begun during 1979–1980, while Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon was Chairman of the Conference, and completed under Senator James McClure of Idaho. Under Senator McClure's leadership in the 1980s, the Conference began providing television, radio and graphics services for Republican Senators. Senator Connie Mack, as Conference Chairman, in 1997 created the first digital Information Technology department to communicate the Republican agenda over the web.
The form and frequency of Conference meetings has depended upon leadership personalities and legislative circumstances. Since the late 1950s, the Conference has met at the beginning of each United States Congress to elect the leadership, approve committee assignments, and attend to other organizational matters. Although other meetings are called from time to time to discuss pending issues, the weekly Policy Committee luncheons afford a regular forum for discussion among Senators. As a former Republican Leader, Senator Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, said in 1959:
At the time Senator Dirksen spoke, the elected party leadership included: Chairman of the Conference, Secretary of the Conference, Floor Leader, Whip (now Assistant Floor Leader), and Chairman of the Policy Committee. On July 31, 1980, Conference rules were amended to make the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee an elected position, a change which brought the rules into conformity with what had become custom.
The Republican Conference has never been a caucus in the dictionary sense, that is, a "partisan legislative group that uses caucus procedures to make decisions binding on its members." Even during the tense years of Reconstruction, Republican Senators were not bound to vote according to Conference decisions. In 1867, for example, when Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts refused to follow Conference policy on an issue, and Senator William P. Fessenden of Maine charged, "you should not have voted on the subject [in Conference] if you did not mean to be bound by the decision of the majority," Sumner retorted, "I am a Senator of the United States," and no attempt was made to discipline him. Such independence was reiterated on March 12, 1925, when a resolution introduced by Senator Wesley L. Jones of Washington passed in the Conference without objection:
|Senate Republican Conference||Senate||Senate Democratic Caucus|
|Conference Chair||Chair||Caucus Chair|
|Conference Vice-Chair / Secretary||Secretary||Caucus Secretary|
|Policy Committee Chair||Policy Committee||Policy Committee Chair|
|House Republican Conference||House of Representatives||House Democratic Caucus|
|Conference Chair||Chair||Caucus Chair|
|Vice Chair||Vice Chair||Vice-Chair / Secretary|
|Policy Committee Chair||Policy Committee||Policy Committee Co-Chair|