Conservative Coalition

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Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg helped defeat Roosevelt's court-packing scheme.[1]

The Conservative Coalition was a group of senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress that brought together the majority of the Northern Republicans and a conservative, mostly Southern minority of the Democrats. The coalition usually defeated the liberals of the New Deal Coalition; it largely controlled Congress from 1937 to 1963. It gained significant traction after sharp backlash against President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to pack the Supreme Court, with many who once supported Roosevelt becoming increasing opposed to his policies. The coalition continued as a potent force until the 1990s when most of the conservative southern Democrats were replaced by southern Republicans.

The coalition no longer exists, though debatably some moderate-leaning Democrats (such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia) perpetuate a weaker form of the coalition by occasionally voting with the Republicans and opposing radical legislation. This is currently observed in the 117th United States Congress where Manchin has particularly sided with Republicans in voicing opposition towards eliminating the filibuster,[2] drawing anger from liberals who advocate for handily ramming far-left legislation through the Senate.

In its heyday, its most important Republican leader until his death in 1953 was Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio; Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen was the key Republican in the 1960s. Five other important Republican figures in the coalition were Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan, Rep. Howard Buffett of Nebraska, Rep. Charles A. Halleck of Indiana, Rep. Leslie Arends of Illinois, and Joseph W. Martin, Jr. of Massachusetts. The chief Democrats were Senator Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia,[note 1] Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, and Rep. Carl Vinson of Georgia. Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia was also a crucial figure in opposing New Deal programs since the mid-1930s.[3] Dirksen and the Republicans sharply broke with the Southern Democrats over civil rights and provided the bipartisan votes necessary to ensure passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964.

Between 1939 and 1963, the coalition was able to exercise virtual veto power over domestic legislation, and no major liberal legislation was passed during this entire near quarter century. Harry Truman won reelection in 1948 and carried a majority-Democrat Congress, but the only portion of his Fair Deal program that passed was cosponsored by Taft. Under Lyndon Johnson in 1963–65, liberals broke the power of the coalition by passing War on Poverty legislation, such as the Food Stamp Act of 1964. Congress passed the liberal Great Society initiatives over the opposition of some Southern Democrat members of the coalition. However, the coalition regained strength in the 1966 elections in the face of massive rioting in the cities and the tearing apart of the Democratic New Deal coalition over issues of black power, liberalism, student radicalism and the Vietnam War.

In 1953 during the 83rd congressional session, the coalition under a new GOP-dominated House helped pass a resolution which re-enacted the Select Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations and Comparable Organizations.[4] The committee, chaired by Tennessee conservative Republican congressman B. Carroll Reece, came to be known as the Reece Committee.

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan won over enough conservative southern Democrats—called Boll Weevils-- to carry his major tax cuts through a House nominally controlled by the Democrats. Led by Congressman Phil Gramm of Texas,[5] they helped Reagan enact many of his domestic policy proposals, to increase defense spending sharply, and to block leftists' attacks on Reagan's anti-Communist policies in Central America. They also helped dismantle some of the remnants of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.[6] Reagan did not campaign against them, so they kept their seats a few years longer.[7]

After 1994, the Republicans took control of most of the conservative southern districts, thus the Southern Democratic part of the coalition largely evaporated.


  • Caro, Robert A. The Years of Lyndon Johnson: vol 3: Master of the Senate (2002); highly detailed narrative of late 1950s
  • Dierenfield, Bruce J. Keeper of the Rules: Congressman Howard W. Smith of Virginia (1987)
  • Fite, Gilbert. Richard B. Russell, Jr, Senator from Georgia (2002)
  • Goldsmith, John A. Colleagues: Richard B. Russell and His Apprentice, Lyndon B. Johnson. (1993)
  • Hulsey, Byron C. Everett Dirksen and His Presidents: How a Senate Giant Shaped American Politics. (2000).
  • MacNeil, Neil. Forge of Democracy: The House of Representatives (1963) online edition
  • Malsberger, John W. From Obstruction to Moderation: The Transformation of Senate Conservatism, 1938-1952 2000
  • Moore, John Robert. "The Conservative Coalition in the United States Senate, 1942-45." Journal of Southern History 1967 33(3): 369–376. in JSTOR statistical analysis of roll calls
  • Nye, Mary Alice. "Conservative Coalition Support in the House of Representatives, 1963-1988," Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 255–270 in JSTOR +
  • Patterson, James T. "A Conservative Coalition Forms in Congress, 1933-1939," The Journal of American History, Vol. 52, No. 4. (Mar., 1966), pp. 757–772. in JSTOR
  • Patterson, James. Congressional Conservatism and the New Deal: The Growth of the Conservative Coalition in Congress, 1933-39 (1967) online at ACLS e-books
  • Patterson, James T. Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (1972)
  • Remini, Robert V. The House: The History of the House of Representatives (2006)
  • Schapsmeier Edward L., and Frederick H. Schapsmeier. Dirksen of Illinois. (1985) the standard biography
  • Schickler, Eric. Disjointed Pluralism: Institutional Innovation and the Development of the U.S. Congress (2001)
  • Shelley II, Mack C. "Presidents and the Conservative Coalition in the U. S. Congress," Legislative Studies Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 79–96 in JSTOR
  • Shelley II, Mack C. The Permanent Majority: The Conservative Coalition in the United States Congress (1983)
  • Rohde, David W. Parties and Leaders in the Postreform House (1991)
  • Young, Roland. Congressional Politics in the Second World War (1956)


  1. While a member of the Coalition, Russell consistently supported notable liberal policies throughout his Senate career.


  1. Debates on the Federal Judiciary: A Documentary History. Federal Judiciary Center. Retrieved May 18, 2021.
  2. Husebo, Wendell (May 12, 2021). Joe Manchin Reiterates Opposition to Annulling Filibuster, Federalizing Elections After Meeting with President. Breitbart News. Retrieved May 18, 2021.
  3. Byrd, Harry. Retrieved April 21, 2021.
  5. Gramm later became a Republican. On Gramm see David Frum, "Righter Than Newt," The Atlantic Monthly v. 275#3 (March 1995) pp 81+, online at Questia
  6. The "boll weevil" was a pest that ruined cotton plants across the South in the early 20th century, and forced the region to diversify out of cotton.
  7. Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (2000) pp 89, 754