Democratic United States Senator Patty Murray (D‑Washington) has been tapped to take over for retiring colleague Patrick Leahy of Vermont as the United States Senate’s President Pro Tempore in the next Congress, her office announced today.
The office of President Pro Tempore is the only position in the United States Senate explicitly mentioned in the Constitution of the United States.
The relevant provision of Article I, Section 3 says:
The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
Pro tempore is Latin, and it means “for the time being.”
When the Vice President is present, they preside over the Senate in their capacity as President of the Senate. When they are not, the Senate President Pro Tempore fills their role, although the President Pro Tempore is not obligated to preside over every minute of a Senate session. In fact, it is common for other members of the majority party to preside. However, the Vice President or Senate President Pro Tempore usually presides on special occasions and for historic votes.
The Senate President Pro Tempore is also third in the presidential line of succession, as stipulated in 3 USC § 19, the updated Presidential Succession Act 1947, which provides (as permitted by the Constitution): “If, at the time when under subsection (a) a Speaker is to begin the discharge of the powers and duties of the office of President, there is no Speaker, or the Speaker fails to qualify as Acting President, then the President pro tempore of the Senate shall, upon his resignation as President pro tempore and as Senator, act as President.”
No one identifying as female has ever served in the position.
“Since the office was created in 1789, 91 individuals, from 39 of the 50 states, have served as president pro tempore of the Senate,” Wikipedia notes.
All have been men.
Murray will make history as the first woman Senate President Pro Tempore.
“I am honored to have earned the confidence of Leader Schumer and my colleagues to serve as President Pro Tempore,” said Murray. “It’s not lost on me the significance of what it would mean to be the first woman to serve in this role. I have a great deal of respect for the Senate and the good I am able to accomplish for families in Washington state as a voice and vote for them.”
“I care deeply about the work we do here in Congress and how that work can help the friends and neighbors I grew up with and the constituents I represent—I look forward to the opportunity to serve our country in this position.”
The legendary U.S. Senator Warren Magnsuon (whose seat is now held by Maria Cantwell, Murray’s seatmate) is the only other Senator from Washington to have held the position of President Pro Tempore, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Known fondly as “Maggie,” Magnuson served for over thirty-six years in the Senate, an era stretching from 1944 to 1981. For most of those years, he served with Senator Henry M. Jackson, known fondly as “Scoop.”
The powerhouse duo of Scoop and Maggie got a lot done for Washington State and the country. Their successors Murray and Cantwell have likewise accomplished a great deal, from high capacity transit investments and weather radar deployment to education reform and financial reform.
Murray will have nearly matched Magnuson’s lengthy record of service at the end of the new term she was just elected to if she serves all six years.
Seniority matters in the Senate. The position of President Pro Tempore has often been held by the most senior member of the chamber’s majority party. The current President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy of Vermont currently has the most seniority of any senator. However, as mentioned, he is retiring.
California’s Dianne Feinstein has more seniority than Murray and was next in line for the job per tradition, but Feinstein is plagued by memory issues and has previously said she doesn’t want to serve, prompting Schumer to turn to Murray. The only other senators with more seniority besides Feinstein are all Republicans: Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell, and Richard Shelby.
Murray is expected to remain Assistant Leader in the new Congress, continuing to serve with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Majority Whip Dick Durbin.