Sen. Hatch takes up pension reform—and his right flank

Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump to award racing legend Roger Penske with Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators MORE (R-Utah) has taken another step to ensure he does not follow in the footsteps of his former colleague, ex-Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah).

Hatch recently signaled he plans a major push on public pension reforms, an issue that is a specialty of one of the Republicans challenging him. It’s the latest step Hatch has taken to solidify his right flank.

"He is trying to burnish his conservative credentials, no question about it,” said LaVarr Webb, a GOP strategist in Utah.

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Dan Liljenquist, a former state senator and one of Hatch’s most prominent Republican opponents, and others say the timing of the incumbent’s pension overhaul efforts strikes them as more than a little coincidental.

Liljenquist led the charge to revamp Utah’s pension system, and told The Hill in an interview that Hatch’s interest in the issue “came out of the blue to us.”

“He may sincerely be interested in this issue. But it’s hard to tell,” said Liljenquist, whose pension efforts got him named one of Governing magazine’s 2011 public officials of the year.

A spokeswoman for Hatch said that the Utah Republican has been working on a public pension proposal for months – well before the Senate field settled.

“People are going to say what they’re going to say. But public pensions are under the jurisdiction of the Finance Committee, so this is definitely his purview,” said the spokeswoman, Antonia Ferrier. “It took quite some time to find a way to crack this nut.”

Three months away from Utah’s nominating convention, Hatch is seen by many political observers as being helped by his well-stocked campaign war chest and the warning sent by Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense: Officials brief Congress after Iran shoots down drone | Lawmakers fear 'grave situation' | Trump warns Iran | Senate votes to block Saudi arms sales | Bombshell confession at Navy SEAL's murder trial The 7 GOP senators who voted to block all or part of Trump's Saudi arms sale Senate votes to block Trump's Saudi arms sale MORE’s (R-Utah) 2010 victory over Bennett – which marked a huge triumph for the Tea Party movement.

To avoid the same fate, Hatch has sought to recast his image.

For much of his six terms in office, Hatch was viewed as a Republican willing to work across the aisle, including with his long-time friend, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

But Hatch has, in recent years, derided the expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, an initiative he helped craft with Kennedy in the late 1990s.

In recent weeks, Hatch also has stridently opposed an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling, something critics note that he supported more than a few times in the past, and continued pounding the drum for a Balanced Budget Amendment.

The senator also recently pulled the plug on his support for the controversial Protect IP Act, and announced plans to pursue legislation to address state and local pension shortfalls.

In a report released this month, Hatch said one of the key aims of the legislation he was working on would be to ensure that the federal government was not on the hook for bailouts.

The report came after Republicans on Capitol Hill repeatedly expressed concern that states unable to meet their pension obligations would look to Washington with hands outstretched.

Hatch’s GOP rivals, and some of his critics on the right, say his recent efforts are merely a political maneuver and defense of a 35-year record of overseeing the expansion of government.

FreedomWorks, a group associated with the Tea Party, and the free market Club for Growth are among the groups that have worked against Hatch, who is in line to become chairman of the powerful Finance Committee if Republicans take control of the Senate this fall.

“We’re going to expose people to his real voting record,” said Russ Walker of FreedomWorks, noting that Hatch voted to start the Education Department and backed the 2008 bailout legislation. “I for one am more concerned about the thought that Hatch could become the chair than the fact he might not.”

Liljenquist, who resigned his post last month before announcing he would take on Hatch, accused the incumbent of overstepping by trying to bring a federal solution to the state and local pension problem.

“When this is one of our proudest accomplishments, it’s kind of a slap in the face to legislators here,” said Liljenquist. “I think it’s a miscalculation that demonstrates to the people in Utah that he’s become disconnected.”

Ferrier, the Hatch spokeswoman, said the federal government needed to get involved in pension reform to ensure that taxpayers in states like Utah, which have put pension reforms into place, aren’t stuck assisting pension programs elsewhere.

It remains to be seen if Liljenquist and other opponents of Hatch will be successful in using the pension issue to tar Hatch as out of touch.

Liljenquist is not the only GOP candidate looking to unseat Hatch, with Chris Herrod, a state representative, among the others in the race.

In some states, that could lead to the challengers splitting the anti-incumbent share of the vote.

But that might not be as much of an issue in Utah, where the convention comes before, if necessary, a primary.

In 2010, for instance, Lee and Tim Bridgewater edged out Bennett at the convention, with Lee then capturing the nomination in the primary.

Still, those opposing Hatch acknowledge that he will have millions at his disposal to try to beat off any challengers.

“He got the message crystal clear, and he started his campaign the next day,” Walker, FreedomWorks’ vice president of political and grassroots campaigns, said about the lessons Hatch learned from Bennett’s loss. “They’re very well organized, and they have been for over the year.”

In fact, Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzFormer chairman appears at House Oversight contempt debate Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties House Dems seek to make officials feel the pain MORE (R-Utah), who many expected to challenge Hatch this year, declined to run for Senate in part because he said it would become “a multimillion-dollar bloodbath.”

Webb, whose consulting company has done some work for Hatch, also said that he was unsure whether the Tea Party would have as much influence in Utah as it did two years ago, when it helped sweep Bennett out of office.

“I don’t sense as big a groundswell of anger as we had in 2010,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as strong as that. But there’s still a lot of people who are angry.”