Orrin Hatch is the happiest senator in Washington

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON — It’s good being the president pro tempore of the Senate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has been in the Senate for 37 years, and he’s seen it all. But for the first time in his career, he has a security detail.

Hatch, who will turn 81 in March, was elevated to his new position after Republicans took control of the Senate last fall. It’s a largely ceremonial post given by tradition to the longest-serving member of the majority party. It includes a few significant duties, such as signing legislation that’s been passed by both chambers before it leaves Congress on its way to the White House. The holder of the post also presides over the Senate when it is in session, though this latter duty is often delegated to newer members of the body.

Most important, the president pro tempore is third in line to the presidency, after the vice president and the speaker of the House. Thus, the security detail.

“Did I lose you?” Hatch asked one of the plainclothes Capitol Police officers who guard him around the clock now, as he stepped off a third-floor elevator in the U.S. Capitol on a recent Friday afternoon. He was clearly still getting used to the idea of having an armed entourage. 

We were on our way from Hatch's new ceremonial office — an ornate and palatial first-floor room on the northwest corner of the building’s Senate side — to his hideaway office on the third floor for a Q&A about his new post and his goals for the session ahead. Hatch had just signed the first bill to be passed by the 114th Congress, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act Reauthorization.

The third-floor office — a place for the senator to get some privacy between votes in the Capitol, away from the eyes of the press and the public — used to belong to Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who died in 2009.

Bill co-sponsors Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., listen as President Barack Obama speaks before signing the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act at the SEED School of Washington, a public boarding school that serves inner-city students facing problems in both the classroom and at home, in Washington, Tuesday, April 21, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Hatch told Utah voters in his first Senate campaign, in 1976, that he wanted to come to Washington to fight liberal senators like Kennedy. But then he and Kennedy wound up becoming close friends and frequent collaborators on legislation. Hatch gave a lengthy speech in tribute at Kennedy's memorial service.

During our conversation, Hatch told me that he thinks Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who showed up at a well-attended reception to celebrate Hatch’s chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee and said a few words in his honor, would like to form a friendship with him “like Kennedy had.” For his part, Hatch said he’d like to see Warren become “the new Kennedy.”

We began our conversation talking about his desire to help Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reach across the aisle to work with Democratic lawmakers.

Yahoo News: So you’re going to be a free safety for bipartisan compromise?

Sen. Orrin Hatch: Let’s hope so. I believe we’ve got to work together, and that means having a more open committee and more open Senate floor process. I think the Republicans are eager, even though we know it’s disadvantageous to us. We could pull the same thing on them that they pulled on us. But we’re eager to have a real process here, where both sides can bring up amendments. Let’s be honest about it — there comes a time when any leader has to say, "You’ve had enough time, you’ve had enough amendments," and lock up the parliamentary tree. But where the irritation was, [former Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] would call up a bill that he would file for cloture like we were filibustering. There was no intention to filibuster. We wanted amendments, as any legislative body would, even though we knew we’d probably lose on most if not all the amendments. But then he would tie up the parliamentary tree … so you couldn’t have amendments without his approval. Well, that was offensive to everybody. Then the only thing we could do is not let him invoke cloture, in other words filibuster. But we had no intention to filibuster hardly any of the things he brought up. But that’s what he did because he was trying to foreclose any amendments that might embarrass his side or that might be tough votes for his side, even though the Senate has always been a body where you can bring up nongermane amendments if you want to. It’s what makes it a free, deliberative body.

What’s going to be your role?

I’m certainly a member of the leadership team as president pro tempore and have been invited to participate. My role is an exemplary one. It’s also a role where I sign all legislation. It’s a role where I’m not only third in line for the presidency but I have a number of other very important duties behind the scenes. And it’s a role where, hopefully, I as what some people call an older statesman can help resolve some of the pains and irritations and scars that came from the way the Senate’s been run over the last four years, and bring people together. Everybody knows that I’m one of the guys that has been able to get things done around here and through all the years.

When you say heal some of those wounds, does that mean you’ve got to work on people on your own side to not be —

Sure, there are some on our side that — I’ve had people in here who I’ve really talked turkey with as a friend.

Trying to get them to be fair?

Well, just trying to get them to change some of the approaches that they’re using that are nonproductive.

Who are some of the Democrats you think you can work with on tax reform —

Well, there are a number of them. I actually believe that [Sen.] Ron Wyden [D-Ore.] is an excellent person to work with. He wants to be bipartisan. He’s very liberal. I’m very conservative. ... But he’s a person who can move to center. Certainly I’ve proven that I can.

When you have Republicans in here, what do you say to them?

Well, you tailor your remarks to whatever interests them ... and whatever will reach them.

But are you saying, "We’ve got to be better than the Democrats were"?

Well, yeah, I want our side to be honest. I want our side to be decent. I want our side to work better than the Democrats do. It’s not hard, because they don’t work very well. They are much more — well, there are some great Democrats who could be great legislators but aren’t right now. But they could be.

Why do you think they’re not?

Well, because they’re too partisan. And they don’t realize that there are people over here that would work with them. Everything is political to them. And I think that’s going to change.

Why?

Because of the way the Senate’s going to be run. ... Hopefully it will be run in a way that will keep us here even through [20]16, which is going to be a really rough year for us.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., right, joined by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 30, 2013, after a GOP strategy session.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Is part of your job going to be being an advocate for this process to Mitch McConnell so that when he’s potentially at a place where he’s frustrated, you’re saying, "Hey, Mitch, let’s keep going with open amendments"?

Mitch doesn’t miss much. My role there is probably to understand what he’s saying and to back him so that we can get things accomplished. Mitch is an honest man. He’s a very straightforward guy. He’s tough. People don’t realize how tough he is.

Is he tougher than you?

Nobody’s tougher than I am. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. No, he’s very tough. I’m considered a pussycat around here. People know that if they work with me I’ll work with them. But they also know that if I get my back in the air, I don’t care who they are, they’re going to have a rough time.

Were you surprised that Elizabeth Warren showed up at your reception the other day?

No.

Why’d she come?

We’ve become friends. I think she would like to have a relationship with me like Kennedy had. I like her. I think she’s a very bright woman. She’s certainly playing the media in a beautiful way.

How did you become friends?

Well, I think she recognized me as somebody who does do things around here, and we’ve had some nice chats, and she’s open to good ideas. That’s all I can ask of anybody. I think she’s an attractive person. She’s soft-spoken, but she’s capable of saying all the right left-wing things, and I give her credit for that.

But you think she can attract left-wing support and yet still be a compromiser?

We’ll see. I’m willing to work with her. There are a couple things we’re working on — I can’t go into what they are right now, but we’ll see. I’d like to see her become the new Kennedy if she can.

I don’t think she seems to be preparing to run for president. There’s no indication of it.

Well, she may not have any control over that.

Are you going to run again in 2018?

We’ll have to see. I’ve said that that’s probably when I hang them up. But I’ve got a lot of people asking me to run, a good number of people, many of them very influential in Utah. You know, if I thought — let’s say we were in the middle of tax reform and I thought it was going to take a couple more years or so to do, I’d do what’s in the best interest of the country.