Tea party threat defused, Hatch looks to tax deal
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rare is the Tea Party-tested Republican senator who hangs an image of the Kennedys' Hyannisport home over his desk and shows off the painter's personal inscription.
"Orrin," reads the note, scribbled below a cobalt-blue sea. "We'll leave the light on at the compound for you anytime. Ted Kennedy, '91."
The beacon of bipartisanship that defined their odd-couple relationship still guides Utah's Orrin Hatch. He didn't advertise it as he wooed and won over the tea partiers who, two years ago, toppled fellow conservative Robert Bennett from his Senate perch.
But now, with his state's Senate GOP nomination in hand and re-election to a seventh term all but assured, Hatch, 78, can think about his legacy.
He's very clear about what he wants: As the senior Republican in the Senate, his party's top voice on the tax-writing Finance Committee, Hatch wants a deal that restructures the tax code while also slowing and even stopping the government's accumulation of debt. To get it, he says he'll practice the art of compromise over the take-my-marbles-and-leave mentality that has tied up Congress in recent years.
"There has to be a course correction," Hatch said in a recent interview. "If I am chairman of the Finance Committee, you can bet your sweet bippy I will take a leading role."
A new tax code, he says, would have to be bipartisan to pass Congress and, as importantly, have credibility with the Americans who will fork over large chunks of their paychecks under it. Orchestrating it will require a delicate touch with Washington's most muscular interest groups and stubborn factions of both parties.
In the vaulted Capitol hideaway office he inherited from Kennedy — the seascape hanging nearby — Hatch offered a reality check on how lawmaking happens.
"Neither side is going to get everything they want," he said. "But it is important that we move ahead, and that we do the art of the doable to pull this country out of the fiscal morass it's in. And I think we can."
Hatch can be so explicit about compromise now because he is the ultimate Senate survivor:
—Of his own stern, televised reading of "The Exorcist" during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
—Of a failed presidential bid in 2000 that was dwarfed by the George W. Bush juggernaut.
—Of his vote for the 2008 bank bailout, an apostasy to the same tea partiers who ousted Bennett.
—And in June, of the first real threat to re-election since winning his Senate seat in 1976.
Washington's political tribal chiefs know that the conservatism Hatch has emphasized in his re-election campaign co-exists with an interest in getting results on Capitol Hill and a long-demonstrated willingness to compromise.
The type of real, red-faced debate that delighted Hatch and Kennedy also produced landmark laws like the American Disabilities Act and children's health insurance. With former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, the bellowing begat federally subsidized child care. Tense talks with no less a partisan than Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., produced a patent exemption that cleared the way for the generic drug industry.
Hatch's last two years of ideological purity — a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, compared with an average 84 percent rating the previous five years — may have been driven by a survival instinct, but it still irritates some.
Vice President Biden recalled how the Utah Republican was an original co-sponsor of his 1994 bill that became the Violence Against Women Act, only to vote against its renewal and expansion this year.
"Orrin and I always had a good personal relationship. We disagreed on a lot but where we found common ground, we worked together," Biden said in a statement to The Associated Press. "I hope those days return."
Tax reform could well be Hatch's enduring legacy. The contours of the debate are clear and broadly philosophical: Republicans think the government levies enough taxes already but growing the economy would produce more revenue. Democrats say the wealthiest are not taxed enough.
Much, of course, depends on who wins the White House and control of Congress.
Here is where the debate would start: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney agrees with Hatch that there should be a one-year extension on all of the Bush-era tax cuts, then comprehensive tax reform. President Barack Obama wants to let those tax cuts expire for Americans making more than $250,000 a year, and then do reform.
Hatch would have great say in where the discussion ends — with a new tax code, a collapse of talks or something in-between. He has willing negotiating partners in both parties, beginning with his Democratic counterpart atop the Finance Committee hierarchy, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, and including some of the most agile dealmakers in Congress.
"Orrin is good, one of the best," says Waxman.
No one suggests that Hatch, for all his red meat bluster lately, comes back to the Senate next year any less of a dealmaker. Right now, longtime colleagues say, Hatch is doing what Hatch does best: adapt to the "rhythms of change."
"Politics is not a static business. The ability of someone who's good at this, and unfortunately we don't give enough credit for it, is the ability to understand that the public's mood is not static either," Dodd, now president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in an interview. "Orrin's got a very good ear. And he used it."
The South Carolina Republican who calls himself "Sen. Tea Party" attributes Hatch's longevity to engaging, rather than dismissing, critics from the right.
"He didn't go home and try to explain to people why they were wrong," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a chief patron of tea party candidates. "He went home and listened."
By the time the tea party had defeated Bennett in a state convention two years ago, Hatch was already on the move. He faced voters deeply suspicious about Washington insiders. For those who said that 36 years in office was enough, he said that he wouldn't be running again if it weren't for the chance he'll become chairman of the Finance Committee. For those who said he wasn't conservative enough, he gravitated to the right.
Hatch also spent about $10 million on a campaign unlike any Utah had seen. He won endorsement from Romney, another of Utah's favorite sons. In the state's June primary running against former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, Hatch won two-thirds of the vote.
Three months from the general election, Hatch is still riling up the base. He'll casually toss off a comment about how he doesn't understand why Obama's experience as a community organizer qualifies him to lead the country. He framed Obama's plans to tax the wealthiest Americans as an attack on small businesses.
For many, the question is whether Hatch hews to conservatism in what are sure to be tough negotiations on taxes and changing entitlement benefit programs.
DeMint thinks a brief moment and concludes, "I trust him."