Hatch wins Kennedy’s hideaway

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has won the famous Capitol hideaway office that once belonged to his old friend, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), which has long been considered the pinnacle of insider prestige. 

It’s a nice prize and the envy of colleagues, but Hatch would prefer not to talk about senatorial perks as he faces a potential Tea Party-backed challenge in the 2012 Utah Republican primary. 

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Second-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has signaled he will vie for Hatch’s seat and might well use the hideaway to help paint Hatch as an entrenched incumbent steeped in Washington’s culture.

“I’m not allowed to talk about that,” Hatch said when asked about the secretive process for assigning hideaways.

A spokesman for the Rules Committee declined to confirm or comment on Hatch’s move.

Senators have spent the past five and a half months picking office suites, and are only now getting around to hideaways. 

These private offices are hidden throughout the Capitol behind nondescript doors. They give senators a private place to work or rest between meetings and late-night votes.

While spaces for junior lawmakers are cramped and windowless and could double for broom closets, some of the fancier spaces for senior members offer stunning views of the Capitol’s west front and quick access to the floor, which is perfect when the majority leader has scheduled a series of votes late into the evening. 

Hatch didn’t think he would have a chance to snag the famous hideaway, since a few Democrats rank ahead of him in seniority. 

“There are a few people ahead of me. I’m sure one of them will get it,” he told The Hill in an earlier interview.

The few Democratic senators with more seniority, Sens. Daniel Inouye (Hawaii) and Patrick Leahy (Vt.), passed on Kennedy’s hideaway. It might have been odd for Leahy to try to fill the shoes of his longtime close friend.

Some senior GOP senators would have loved to move into the Senate’s most prestigious hideaway, but Hatch outranked them. 

“I looked at the Kennedy hideaway — there are some nice ones over there,” said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who came to the Senate in December of 1978, making him the third-ranking member of the Senate GOP conference. 

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would have jumped at the chance to move into Kennedy’s old digs.

“I would if I could. It’s a nice space,” he said.

But as seventh most-senior member of the conference, he never had a chance. 

“It takes so long to get to my number,” he scoffed. 

Hatch, who joined the upper chamber in January of 1977, is the Senate’s most senior Republican.

With arched ceilings and a spectacular bird’s-eye view down the Mall to the Washington Monument, the old Kennedy hideaway has long been a fixation of reporters and lawmakers alike. 

Kennedy used to invite Hatch and other powerbrokers to his lair to negotiate legislative deals, such as the one that created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997. The program covers more than 5 million low- and moderate-income children, and became one of the biggest achievements of Kennedy’s career. 

If Republicans take control of the Senate next year, Hatch will become chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and could use the hideaway as a behind-the-scenes planning room for tax cuts and entitlement reform. 

When The Hill asked him about it in the last Congress, Hatch recalled the office was decorated with mementos from the “Camelot years.”

Kennedy would sit with colleagues and guests around a coffee table hewn from a wooden boat’s rudder to plot strategy, trade concessions or share memories in front of a glowing fire. 

Above the fireplace, Kennedy posted a Gaelic road sign that once pointed travelers roaming the Irish countryside toward Lough Gur, or Loch Gair, in County Limerick. The bookshelves and walls were filled with pictures of the famed Kennedy clan: brothers John and Robert, grandfather John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, nephew and nieces John Jr., Caroline and Maria Shriver. 

The green paint, green carpets, sailing mementos and elegant armchairs gave it the feel of an upscale clubroom. 

Located on the third floor of the Capitol building, it offers easy access to the neighboring radio and television press gallery and the Senate floor. 

The memorabilia is now gone, and Senate custodial staff hauled away the furniture after Kennedy died in August 2009. The walls have been painted white and the floor is now varnished wood. It seems more like a Protestant chapel.