Orrin G. Hatch, a conservative Utah Republican who came out of political nowhere to win a U.S. Senate seat in 1976 and ended his career 42 years later as the longest-serving Republican in the chamber’s history and one of his party’s most influential lawmakers of recent decades, died April 23 in Salt Lake City. He was 88.
The death was announced by the Hatch Foundation. The cause was not immediately disclosed.
Tall and slim in build and impeccable in dress, Mr. Hatch had a gentlemanly demeanor but behind it wielded strong views, high energy and a love for legislative give-and-take that made him a force on Capitol Hill.
When he retired in 2019, at the end of his seventh term, he chaired the powerful tax-writing Finance Committee and by virtue of his seniority was Senate president pro tempore. By the end of his tenure, Mr. Hatch had sponsored or co-sponsored 790 pieces of legislation that became law, more than any other senator in office at the time, according to Library of Congress data. He achieved that record in part through his willingness to work with liberal Democrats.
“He was a tough partisan, a solid conservative, but he could make strategic alliances to get legislation passed,” former Senate historian Donald Ritchie said in an interview. “No one questioned his ideology, so he could deal. People on his side of the aisle trusted him, and people on the other side respected him.”
His most productive collaboration was with Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, his political polar opposite. “One of the reasons I ran for the Senate was to fight Ted Kennedy, who embodied everything I felt was wrong with Washington,” Mr. Hatch wrote in a Newsweek commentary shortly after Kennedy’s death in 2009.
Kennedy was an established Senate force when the Utah firebrand crashed onto the national scene, itching to balance the budget, overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, bury the Equal Rights Amendment and otherwise steer the ship of state rightward. He was “an aggressive, ambitious man who, as much as anything, resembles a minister making his rounds,” a reporter for the New York Times wrote of Mr. Hatch in his first term.
In only his second year in the Senate, Mr. Hatch joined another GOP freshman, Richard Lugar of Indiana, in filibustering a major Democratic-backed labor bill that would have eased barriers to union organizing and, according to Mr. Hatch, led the country “straight to socialism.” After six unsuccessful cloture votes to break the filibuster, Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) surrendered.
Mr. Hatch, a strait-laced former Mormon bishop who grew up in a working-class Pittsburgh family, could scarcely have been more different from Kennedy, a fun-loving scion of East Coast political royalty. To the surprise of both, they found common ground in their efforts to improve health care and social services.
Their best-known collaboration was the 1997 legislation creating the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provided states with matching grants to cover uninsured children in working-poor families. The program, the largest expansion of taxpayer-funded health insurance for children since the creation of Medicaid in 1965, was instrumental in cutting the percentage of uninsured children by more than half.
The two senators also collaborated on the 1990 Ryan White act, which funded care for uninsured and underinsured patients with HIV/AIDS. And Mr. Hatch worked closely with Kennedy and Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, the chief sponsor, to pass the landmark 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act prohibiting discrimination against — and requiring accommodations for — people with disabilities.
One factor in Mr. Hatch’s transition from ideologue to pragmatist was the 1980 election, which shifted Senate control to the GOP and gave him the chairmanship of the Labor and Human Resources Committee — and with it responsibility for health-related legislation. He partnered with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House health subcommittee, to accelerate the approval process for lower-cost generic drugs. The 1984 law, known as the Hatch-Waxman Act, is credited with significantly increasing consumers’ access to generics.
But while Mr. Hatch worked with Democrats on some issues, he battled them fiercely on many others. The Almanac of American Politics called him “consistent in his inconsistency.”
He strongly supported the Reagan administration’s muscular military and foreign policies. He opposed efforts to expand civil rights laws, supported restricting abortion rights, and worked — with some exceptions — to rein in the cost and reach of government.
During the Obama White House years, he was an untiring foe of the Affordable Care Act, and he capped his career shepherding President Trump’s 2017 tax cut through the Senate, despite arguments that it would balloon the national debt.
On 28 occasions by his count, Mr. Hatch introduced a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. The high-water mark was in 1995, when the House passed the measure and pro-amendment senators led by Mr. Hatch came within one vote of prevailing.
As a member of the Judiciary Committee, which he led for eight years as chairman, he played a central role in confirmation battles over Supreme Court nominees from Robert Bork to Brett M. Kavanaugh. In 1991, he was a high-profile defender of Clarence Thomas against sexual harassment charges by law professor Anita Hill. Attacking Hill’s credibility, Mr. Hatch held up a copy of the horror novel “The Exorcist” and suggested she cribbed one of her most dramatic claims from the book.
Mr. Hatch’s reputation for bipartisan dealmaking suffered in the last years of his tenure as he tacked right in the face of growing anti-Washington sentiment among Utah Republicans.
In 2010, right-wing activists dominated the state GOP convention and denied Mr. Hatch’s Republican colleague, Sen. Robert Bennett, nomination for a fourth term. Mr. Hatch, up for reelection two years later, appeared vulnerable to the same forces. Like Bennett, he had voted for a financial bailout package to stem the 2008 housing-market meltdown — a mortal sin, as tea party Republicans saw it.
Mr. Hatch went all-out to reestablish his conservative credentials. He was one of nine senators to oppose a 2011 budget deal struck to avoid a government shutdown, claiming the measure did not cut spending enough. “I’m prepared to be the most hated man in this Godforsaken city in order to save this country,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Although the 2012 state convention forced him into a primary with a tea-party-allied candidate, he won by a landslide.
During that campaign, Mr. Hatch told voters he would not run again. But as 2018 approached, he toyed seriously with seeking an eighth term. Trump, who had no love for Mr. Hatch’s ultimate replacement, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, pushed him to run.
But a 2016 poll of likely Utah voters found that 71 percent thought he should step aside. In a blistering editorial, the Salt Lake Tribune said that if Mr. Hatch didn’t end his career, “the voters should end it for him.” In January 2018, Mr. Hatch announced he would not seek reelection, saying, “Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves,” a reference to his youthful experience as an amateur boxer.
In the 2016 GOP presidential primary race, Trump was Mr. Hatch’s third choice after former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). But once at Trump’s side, Mr. Hatch stayed firmly affixed, despite his free-trade views that contrasted with the president’s protectionist policies.
When court filings in late 2018 implicated Trump in an effort during his campaign to buy the silence of two women who claimed they had sexual encounters with him years earlier, Mr. Hatch dismissed the revelation as unimportant. “Since he’s become president, this economy has charged ahead. We’re all better off,” Mr. Hatch told CNN in remarks that Mr. Hatch later said he regretted. “And I think we ought to judge him on that basis rather than trying to drum up things from the past that may or may not be true.”
Shortly before Mr. Hatch left office, Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian commendation. The president had earlier shrunk the size of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, a move sought by Mr. Hatch and other Utah officials and opposed by environmental and American Indian groups. “I’m approving the Bears Ears recommendation for you, Orrin,” Trump told him in a 2017 phone call, Mr. Hatch reported.
'I've had to fight'
Orrin Grant Hatch was born March 22, 1934, in Pittsburgh. His parents had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. Mr. Hatch’s brother Jesse was killed in World War II when his B-24 bomber went down in enemy action over Europe, a loss that the future senator, 10 years old at the time, said had a lifelong impact on him.
His father was a metal lather and union member. The family, as the future senator often recounted, had little money and lived in a “ramshackle house” built by his parents out of recycled lumber, one side adorned by a large sign for Meadow Gold Ice Cream.
As a boy, he was scrawny and was pushed around by a schoolyard bully. As Mr. Hatch told the story, he filled a duffel bag with sand, hung it from a tree and spent after-school hours learning how to throw punches, later moving on to amateur bouts. “My life has always been uphill,” he later told the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve had to fight for everything I have.”
Despite the family’s limited resources, his mother insisted that Mr. Hatch take piano lessons, and she gave him season tickets to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. In his Senate years, he was a prolific songwriter and lyricist, frequently collaborating with Janice Kapp Perry, a Utah composer of inspirational music. Many of his pieces had a religious or patriotic message, but he also wrote love songs.
Mr. Hatch’s output also included two books on his religious beliefs and a 2002 autobiography, “Square Peg: Confessions of a Citizen Senator.”
After fulfilling a Mormon mission in the Midwest, Mr. Hatch graduated in 1959 from Utah’s Brigham Young University, the first in his family to complete college. Three years later, he received a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
At BYU, he met Elaine Hansen, a fellow student; they married in 1957 and had six children. Survivors include his wife, children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mr. Hatch was a lawyer in Pittsburgh until 1969, when he moved his family to Salt Lake City. There, he continued to practice law.
Mr. Hatch, who started out as a Democrat, became a Republican in law school and grew convinced in Utah that the nation was headed toward economic and moral ruin. When he decided to challenge the state’s three-term Democratic U.S. senator, Frank Moss, almost no one but Mr. Hatch thought he had a chance.
He had lived in Utah only seven years, had never sought elective office and faced four better-known Republicans for the party’s nomination. Aided by Ronald Reagan’s endorsement, he won and advanced to the general election.
Moss was active on consumer and health issues and was well regarded in Washington. But Mr. Hatch hammered him as out of touch with the increasingly Republican state. “What do you call a senator who’s served in office for 18 years? You call him home,” he said, a line that resurfaced in public memory as his own tenure stretched far beyond Moss’s. Mr. Hatch won with 54 percent of the vote and, except for his 2012 scare, cruised to reelection afterward.
His one electoral defeat came in 2000, when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination. “I believe in miracles, and it will take one to elect me,” Mr. Hatch quipped of his poorly funded campaign. In Iowa, he drew 1 percent of the vote in the state’s GOP caucuses. He immediately withdrew and supported front-runner and future president George W. Bush.
Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was a senator for more than 47 years when he retired at age 100 in 2003. But he served the first nine as a Democrat, allowing Mr. Hatch’s 42 years to rank as the longest Republican tenure. (Byrd holds the all-time Senate longevity record: 51 years, 5 months.)
Mr. Hatch confessed to making mistakes over his long career, among them his vote against creating a national holiday to honor the slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. Another mistake, an innocent one in his telling, was a 1990 floor speech that he made defending the Justice Department’s controversial settlement with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International on money laundering charges.
The speech was largely written by Robert Altman, a BCCI lawyer and official who was later indicted but ultimately acquitted of fraud charges stemming from the scandal. The speech and subsequent disclosure of Mr. Hatch’s ties to BCCI personnel generated unfavorable media attention — much of it unfair, Mr. Hatch contended — and sent him into what he called “ethical purgatory.” In 1993, the Senate Ethics Committee cleared him of misconduct.
By the end of his Senate tenure, Mr. Hatch’s once-brown hair was gleaming white, but his fondness for dark suits, starched-collar shirts and colorful ties remained intact. And while generally soft-spoken, he also remained fully capable of holding his own.
During Finance Committee deliberations on the Trump tax bill, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown insisted the legislation was designed to help the rich. Slamming down the gavel, his voice rising, Mr. Hatch angrily dismissed the charge, adding, “I come from the lower middle class originally. We didn’t have anything. So don’t spew that stuff on me. I get a little tired of that crap.”
Thirteen months later, when he delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor, it was Mr. Hatch’s softer side that spoke. Invoking his relationship with Kennedy, he called for a return to collegiality, good will and acceptance. “Pluralism,” he said, “is the adhesive that holds together the great American mosaic. It is the idea that we can actually be united by our differences, not in spite of them.”
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