Who Will Be the Next Senate Pro Tem? (And Other Fun Senate Pro Tem Questions)

It took me two posts last week to make a Four Weeks Out prediction for who wins the Senate at next month’s midterm elections. One may ask, “Who cares? Why does it matter who controls the Senate?” Well, with control of the Senate comes so much more — the party of the Senate Majority Leader, the ability to control legislation exiting out of the chamber, committee chair control, advice and consent on the President’s judicial appointments, control over Senate investigations, and more.

But we all know what matters most. Whichever party wins the Senate majority gets to pick the . . . president pro tempore! I know, huge deal, right?

What IS the president pro tempore, you ask? I’m all too happy to answer that question and so many more that I made up.

So today, let’s take a breather from the midterms before its stressful final two weeks. Instead, I will answer ten Frequently Asked Questions* about the president pro tempore of the United States Senate.

*denotes that no one actually asked me these questions

Question #1. What the hell are you talking about?

I rarely know, but that never stops me from giving it the ‘ole college try. The president pro tempore of the United States Senate, often called the “president pro tem” or “Senate pro tem,” is one of only two members of Congress mentioned in the Constitution. (The other is the Speaker of the House.)

Technically speaking — or, perhaps, Constitutionally speaking — this special senator ranks below only one other official in the Senate. You might have known that the Constitution made the vice president of the United States simultaneously serve as the “president of the Senate,” mostly so they could give my man John Adams something to do instead of wait around for George Washington to die. Although the VP can only cast a vote when there’s a tie, the office still retains the right to preside over the chamber.

Of course, vice presidents are often too busy cutting ribbons, meeting with NCAA champions, and making fools of themselves, so they can’t exactly attend all the Senate sessions. Another presiding officer is regularly needed.

To that end, Article I, Section 3, Clause 5 of the Constitution says that the Senate can pick, “a President pro tempore” who can run the chamber “in the Absence of the Vice President, or when” the vice president “shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.” In other words, when VPOTUS is either busy or has become POTUS, someone else needs to run the Senate.

Enter the Senate pro tem.

2. Do they have special powers?

What, like Gandalf or something? No, of course not, although I admittedly have my suspicions about Henry B. Anthony.

YOU SHALL NOT PASS! . . . a bill without a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

Nor does the Senate pro tem have any special political power. They are a US senator, so they have the normal power of any of our hundred US senators, but other than that they just get to bang a gavel sometimes, or they can pull a real boss move and tell someone else to bang the gavel for them while they take a nap in the cloakroom.

3. How do they decide who the president pro tempore is?

Russian roulette.

Not really. Well, actually, there is an intersection to that particular Venn Diagram. Russian roulette players and presidents pro tem are potentially close to death at all times.

That’s because, since 1890, the Senate pro tem has usually been the longest serving senator of the majority party. That usually means we have like a five-term or six-term (or more-term!) senator in the position, meaning they’ve been in the Senate for several decades, and that’s probably after rising up the political ranks before that. As a result, presidents pro tem are typically in their 70s to 90s.

Not coincidentally, that makes it the last Constitutionally-required federal office to not have some semblance of diversity. We’ve now had non-white-males as Supreme Court justices, Speaker of the House, vice president, and president. But the Senate pro tem? Nah. Instead, we’ve just had 91 white men, one after another, like a St. Patrick’s Day parade in rural Wisconsin.

Simply put, non-white-men haven’t been elected to political office long enough to qualify to be “senior” members of the Senate. It’s a tremendous reminder of the progress of recent history.

4. Who’s the Senate pro tem now?

Since the Senate pro tem is the longest serving senator of the majority party, the office is currently occupied by Vermont Senator Pat Leahy (82), the seniormost Democrat in the chamber and the very personification of what was just described in #3.

Mind-blowing fact: of the two senators from Vermont, Bernie Sanders is the younger one.

Guess when Leahy won his first Senate election. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

You were wrong. It was 1974. He literally won thanks to Watergate hurting Republican candidates that year. The dude has been around forever.

The Senate pro tem before Leahy was Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. Remember that before the 2020 election, Republicans had the Senate majority, so their seniormost member was the Senate pro tem. Before him it was Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, who unfortunately had to tithe 10% of the office’s pay bump to the Mormon Church. Hatch retired while Republicans had the Senate majority, and so the office fell to Grassley.

Grassley had to give up the office when Democrats took the majority in 2021, but he remains senator to this day. The 89-year-old is running for an eighth term this year, and he’ll likely win, keeping him in the Senate until he’s 95 or he dies, whichever comes first. (A coin flip, really.) If Republicans win back the majority, he’ll once again be president pro tempore, at which point I’ll have to add “nonagenarian” to my vocabulary.

5. You’ve gone this far without mentioning the only thing I knew about the Senate pro tem. What gives?

Sorry, you know it takes PPFA a long time to get going. The one thing you may had already known about the president pro tempore was that it’s fairly high up on the presidential line of succession. You may may have even learned that earlier this year at this very website, when I dove into the presidential line of succession.

As currently established, here are the top three in line:

  1. Vice President
  2. Speaker of the House
  3. Senate pro tem!

Only after them would we get to the Secretary of State, Treasury, Defense, and so forth.

It’s worth noting that the line of succession has changed over time, and in fact the Senate pro tem had actually been higher in the past. The Second Congress passed the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, which placed our two highest ranking Congressional officials — the Speaker of the House and Senate pro tem — after the vice president in the line of succession. In 1886, a new act removed them in favor of the president’s cabinet, but they were restored by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. They’ve been there ever since.

During that initial stretch from 1792 to 1886, it was actually the Senate pro tem, as the leader of the “upper chamber,” who was next in line after the vice president, above the Speaker of the House, the leader of the “lower chamber.” Upon their re-insertion in 1947, however, the Speaker was placed ahead. Many feel this was because VP-less President Truman wanted his drinking buddy, Speaker Sam Rayburn, next in line instead of Senate Pro-Tem Kenneth McCellar, who was not an ally of Truman and also happened to be 78 years old. Could you imagine someone pushing 80 being that close to presidential power? (Oh, what’s that? We already have that? And the next election might be between an 81 year old and 78 year old? Cool. Totally normal.)

6. Just how close has a Senate pro tem gotten to the presidency?

No Senate pro tems have ever ascended through the line of succession, but a few rose up the ranks later in their career. William R. King and Charles Curtis were presidents pro tempore who later became vice president of the United States. (King was VP under President Pierce and Curtis under President Hoover.) The only Senate pro tem who made it all the way to the top was John Tyler, but even he would have probably topped out at the vice presidency had his president, William Henry Harrison, decided to dress more warmly at their inauguration.

Another way to look at this question is how close has a sitting president pro tem come to the presidency? We’d have to go back to that period where the Senate pro tem was second in the line of succession, after the vice president and before the Speaker: 1792-1886. During that stretch, there were actually quite a few instances where the Senate pro tem was next in line, either due to the death of the president or the vice president. (Before the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1965, there was no mechanism to replace the vacant vice presidency before the next election.) During that stretch, Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Alan Arthur all became president upon the death of their predecessor. Another five vice presidents died during that period, and a sixth (John C. Calhoun) resigned.

In those ten cases, a Senate pro tem has been a heartbeat away from the presidency. Much to their frustration, however, the heart in question kept beating.

7. Have any of them actually held presidential power, even briefly?

As you probably know, vice presidents are sometimes given temporary executive power when circumstances require, like if the president is in surgery or reading a children’s story about goats. But has a next-in-line president pro tempore ever held that kind of momentary power?

Kind of, but it had nothing to do with anesthesia or animal books; rather, it was about timing and the Fourth Commandment. On Sunday, March 4, 1849, President James Polk left office as his term expired. (Inauguration Day was on March 4 until the 20th Amendment of 1933 moved it to January 20.) However, for religious reasons, his elected successor, Zachary Taylor, refused to be sworn in on a Sunday. Same with his running mate, Millard Fillmore. The Senate pro tem, David Rice Atchison, claims he was acting president until Monday’s inauguration ceremony, an assertion doubted by contemporaries and historians alike.

Undeterred, his final word on the matter is printed on his gravestone.

Sure you were, Senator. Sure you were.

8. Has any Senate pro tem considered a coup?

Actually, kinda yes! One of the aforementioned vacancies of the vice presidential office came during Andrew Johnson’s presidency. Johnson was tasked with finishing Abraham Lincoln’s second term after Lincoln had just the worst time at the theater.

Johnson, a Democrat, made considerable enemies with the Republicans who controlled Congress in the years after the Civil War, and he was eventually impeached, a feat historians now call a Half-a-Trump.

Once the House impeaches, it’s up to the Senate to vote on whether to remove the president or acquit, essentially acting as the jury of the impeachment trial. One of the senators, Ohio’s Benjamin Franklin Wade, was — you guessed it — the president pro tempore of the Senate. Without a sitting vice president, Wade was next in line to the presidency. He was also one of the harshest critics of President Johnson and played a big role in bringing Johnson to trial and whipping votes against him in the Senate. When voting for Johnson’s removal, he was essentially voting to remove Johnson from power and install himself as the next president.

That sounds like a coup to me.

9. Okay, you get one more fun fact before I get back to Amazon browsing. What’s it going to be?

Let’s use our elderly presidents pro tempore to play one of my favorite games: history is shorter than you think.

Let’s start with our current Senate pro tem, Pat Leahy.

  • Senator Leahy was born in 1940. Who was Senate pro tem that year? William H. King.
  • Senator King was born in 1863. Who was Senate pro tem that year? The gloriously named Solomon Foot.
  • Senator Foot (amazing) was born in 1802. Who was Senate pro tem that year? Abraham Baldwin.
  • When Baldwin became Senate pro tem, Thomas Jefferson was serving as our third president. And we got there in just three Senate Pro tem lifetimes: Leahy, King, Foot.

History is shorter than you think.

10. Yeah, well, so’s my time. Just get to what I came here for. Who will be the next Senate pro tem?

That’s what I was trying to figure out last week! Weren’t you paying attention?

The answer depends on who wins the Senate majority. If Republicans win it, it’ll be Chuck Grassley again, just in time for his 90th birthday next year.

If Democrats win, however, it won’t be Leahy, as he’s finally ending his political career. The Democrats’ next most senior member is California’s Dianne Feinstein, who’s 89 like Grassley and in the middle of her sixth term. However, Feinstein at this stage of her life might be a few seeds short of a pumpkin and it wouldn’t surprise me to see her step down. It would then fall to Washington’s Patty Murray, who’s been in the Senate since 1993. (Murray faces a relatively easy re-election next month.) At 72, she’s a spring chicken compared to Feinstein and Grassley.

Regardless, if Democrats hold on to the chamber, it looks like we’ll have our first non-white-man Senate pro tem in history.

That’s one more reason to pay attention to the midterms. Back to that next week.


4 thoughts on “Who Will Be the Next Senate Pro Tem? (And Other Fun Senate Pro Tem Questions)”

  1. Probably the most fascinating aspect of the Lincoln assassination is that history would have been drastically different had one of the conspirators not “Chickened Out”. Had the assassin’s plot gone as planned, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Secretary of State William Seward would have also been killed. That’s knocking off three presidents, and perhaps eliminating the later acquisition of a state. Seward’s legacy of acquiring Alaska for pennies on the dollar, was of course dubbed ‘Seward’s folly’ for its lack of popularity at the time.

    Even more surprising (and relevant), the Senate Pro tem at the time was– Lafayette S. Foster, the former mayor of Norwich CT! Would be interesting to see his impact on reconstruction as opposed to Johnson’s notorious mishandling of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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