Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate

Greg Nash

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the longest-serving Republican senator in history, will retire at the end of this Congress, bringing to a close a storied 41-year career that put him at the center of the nation’s biggest political debates.

The 83-year-old senator announced his retirement in a short video that recalled his childhood in a “ramshackle house built with recycled lumber from the local scrap yard,” his youth as an amateur boxer and his record authoring more bills that have become law than any member of Congress alive today.

He said he looks forward to spending more time with his wife of nearly 60 years, Elaine, and his six children and 23 grandchildren. 

{mosads}Hatch never shied away from fights with Democrats or Republicans and fended off a primary challenge six years ago. The Utah senator with an impish smile told reporters on many occasions that he is “a tough old bird.” But he also was a deal-maker who at times would work with the other side of the aisle.

As chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, Hatch capped his career list of legislative accomplishments last month by passing the landmark GOP tax-reform bill, which his panel played a major role in drafting. 

When the Senate passed its version of tax reform a month ago, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) quipped that Hatch was “here the last time this was done years ago,” referring to the 1986 tax-reform bill. 

Hatch is third in line to presidency as the Senate’s president pro tem, and only Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has served in the chamber for a longer time. 

Hatch’s departure creates an opening atop the Finance panel, which has far-reaching jurisdiction over taxes, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and trade. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who used to chair the Finance Committee, could serve another two years as chairman before having to step down because of term limits — if he decides to give up the top slot on Judiciary. He already has reached the limit for time served as the top-ranking minority member of the Finance panel.

Otherwise, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) would have a good shot of taking over Finance. 

Over the years, Hatch has played prominent roles in the judicial confirmation battles over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Patriot Act, and enactment of Trade Promotion Authority.  

He has been an outspoken advocate for curbing the cost of entitlement programs, reforming tort law and defending intellectual property rights. 

Hatch was chairman of the Judiciary Committee when Democrats blocked several of President George W. Bush’s most controversial circuit court nominees, including Miguel Estrada, Charles Pickering and William Pryor, which almost led to Republicans abolishing judicial filibusters in 2005. He participated in the confirmation hearings of every sitting member of the Supreme Court. 

Hatch was an early and staunch supporter of President Reagan, who helped him win a closely contested Senate Republican primary in 1976 with a last-minute endorsement. 

He went on to win the general election that year by defeating Democratic incumbent Frank Moss with the effective punchline: “What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home.” 

Hatch backed term limits when he first ran for Senate, but he currently ranks ninth on the list of all-time longest serving senators. If he completes his term, he will end up as the sixth longest serving senator in history. 

Former Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) served for a longer time in the chamber, but spent part of his career as a Democrat. 

While Hatch was long been known among colleagues and staff for his courtly, gentlemanly demeanor, he always had a knack for delivering a crisp rhetorical punch to an opponent. 

He regularly sparred with Democrats throughout his more than four decades in the Senate. 

Hatch blasted his Democratic colleagues earlier this year for “acting like idiots” after they delayed votes on two of President Trump’s Cabinet nominees by skipping a committee hearing. 

But Hatch’s biggest legacy may be the work he did with liberals such as former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to expand access to medical care for low-income Americans.

Hatch co-sponsored legislation with Kennedy in 1997 to provide health insurance to 10 million uninsured children through a program now known as the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress is expected to reauthorize this month. 

Hatch at the time said he wanted to prove the GOP “does not hate children” and argued the nation has a “moral responsibility” to provide coverage for poor children. 

Hatch also struck a deal with Kennedy and former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (D) in 1990 to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.

That raised hopes among Democrats in 2009 that he might sign onto their comprehensive health-care reform bill, which is now known as ObamaCare. 

Hatch initially attended bipartisan meetings convened by then-Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) but pulled out in July after it became clear he could not support the legislation. 

The tax bill he shepherded through the Senate last month repealed a core element of ObamaCare, the federal mandate requiring most individuals to purchase health insurance.   

In the 1980s, he worked with Waxman to pass the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act, also known as the Hatch–Waxman Act, which lowered the price of prescription drugs by making it easier to bring generic drugs to market. 

But otherwise Hatch has been a staunch defender of intellectual property rights. He backed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 that cracked down on illegal downloading of music and movies and helped put Napster out of business. 

He held up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest prospective trade deal in American history, in the last Congress because he was concerned that it did not provide enough intellectual protection protections for biologics. 

Hatch was also known among Senate colleagues for his side career in music. Hatch worked with various musicians to compose more than 300 songs, including the soundtrack to a Hollywood movie, “Ocean’s Twelve.” The New York Times reported he earned nearly $40,000 in royalties in 2005.  

Hatch generally cruised to reelection throughout his career, but he faced a primary scare in 2012 after his longtime colleague, Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), was ousted by conservative challenger Mike Lee in 2010. 

Hatch was vulnerable after voting for Wall Street bailout legislation in the midst of the 2008 financial collapse and later admitted that the vote was probably a mistake, but also defended it as necessary as the nation appeared headed for a recession. 

He tacked to the right leading up to the 2012 campaign and promised voters that his seventh would be his last term in the Senate. He easily won the primary that year with 66 percent of the vote. 

Hatch, who made a short-lived bid for the presidency in 2000, did not initially support Trump in last year’s presidential election. He first endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and then backed fellow Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla). 

Hatch didn’t endorse Trump until after meeting with him in May of 2016 and later criticized his comments about women caught on the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape as “offensive and disgusting.” But he has since emerged as one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders in the Senate. 

Hatch praised Trump in November as “one of the best” presidents he’s served under and as “one heck of a leader” at a White House event celebrating passage of the tax bill last month.” 

Trump congratulated Hatch on Tuesday on an “absolutely incredible career” and praised him as a “tremendous supporter” who will be “greatly missed in the Senate.” 

Tags Chuck Grassley Donald Trump Marco Rubio Max Baucus Mike Crapo Mike Lee Mitch McConnell Orrin Hatch Orrin Hatch Patrick Leahy Tom Harkin Utah

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video