Orrin Hatch, longest-serving Republican senator in the US, dies at 88

WASHINGTON — Former Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who played a key role in tax, civil rights and health care legislation for more than four decades, died Saturday, his foundation said. He was 88 years old.

Hatch represented Utah in the Senate from 1977 to 2019. He was the longest-serving Republican senator in the country. According to his foundation, he spent 32 of his 42 years in Congress as president or as the top Republican on a committee.

Hatch announced his retirement in 2018, shortly after passing Congress on a $1.5 trillion tax cut that then-President Donald Trump signed into law.

President Trump joined Republican members of the Senate and House to mark Congressional approval of the GOP tax plan Wednesday at the White House. Trump said tax reform will bring businesses and jobs back to the US Photo: Shutterstock

Hatch worked on a bipartisan basis with the late Senator Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, to co-write the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, which expanded health coverage for poor children. He worked with senators from both parties to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act, which he later called one of the major achievements of his career.

“Most of the laws I’m most proud of had dozens of co-sponsors, were widely seen as bipartisan, and stayed on the books largely because I didn’t get everything I wanted,” Hatch said in a 2018 speech as he prepared to leave the Senate. “Our differences can be as numerous as our similarities. But if we start from the premise that each member’s intention is to improve our country and the lives of its citizens, our differences are logistical, not personal.”

Hatch helped shape the Supreme Court out of the Judiciary Committee, championing the appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas and participating in more than a dozen high court confirmation hearings as Republicans sought to steer the court in a more conservative direction. He later recommended the late liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, for the court and described her as a dear friend despite differing ideological views.

During his final term, Mr. Hatch was chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over tax, commerce, and health policy. His biggest achievement during this period was the 2017 tax law, and befitting an increasingly partisan era in Congress, it lacked the bipartisan flavor of some of his earlier laws. He was succeeded in the Senate by Republican Mitt Romney.

Late Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who has served alongside Hatch for decades, called him a principled conservative on taxes and the judiciary who was “an equally eager and passionate quarterback.” effective” on bipartisan issues such as the ADA. Romney praised Hatch’s legislative achievements and said “few men have left their mark on the Senate like he has.”

While House Republicans spent much of early 2017 publicly debating their own plans, Hatch and his team more discreetly pieced together the key pieces of what became the Jobs and Tax Cuts Act. Among its priorities: reducing marginal tax rates, reforming the international tax system and repealing the individual mandate tax for not purchasing health insurance.

Hatch delegated important functions to more junior lawmakers, who got the details right. Together they forged the intra-Republican compromise that passed the Senate.

Mr. Hatch was a gifted songwriter and songwriter, writing over 300 songs, including one performed at the inauguration of George W. Bush. Most of the songs were religious in nature. The song “Unspoken”, which he co-wrote, was included on a Christian pop music compilation and sold over a million copies, earning Hatch a gold and platinum album. One of the last laws he championed was a bill to revise laws related to how songwriters are paid when their music is licensed or played.

His foundation said he died Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City surrounded by family.

He has been married to his wife Elaine for over 60 years. They had six children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Orrin Grant Hatch was born on March 22, 1934, near Pittsburgh and grew up there before attending Brigham Young University in Utah. He eventually settled in Utah and worked there as a lawyer. A faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he often talked about being guided by his faith. In 2012, he wrote “An American, a Mormon, and a Christian: What I Believe.”

He won the Senate election in 1976, defeating incumbent Frank Moss, and faced few serious challenges thereafter in a state that had become reliably Republican. He campaigned as a political newcomer and lashed out at Moss for serving in the Senate too long, though he will go on to set records for his long time in office.

A tall, thin man with a wry sense of humor, Hatch was comfortable in the Senate club, at home with both Democrats and Republicans. He could work closely with Kennedy on health policy, finding common ground with his ideological opposite. And the former amateur boxer can also be a political fighter, particularly in court confirmation debates ranging from Robert Bork to Brett Kavanaugh.

He tried to capitalize on his legislative record in a bid to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, but that campaign failed to gain traction and he dropped out after finishing last in the Iowa caucuses.

Hatch began his Senate career as one of the most conservative Republicans, aligned with Ronald Reagan in a more ideologically diverse party. Over time, he found himself at the center of the party, joining the Republican leadership on legislation widely supported but rejecting many Democratic initiatives. He was a generally trusted vote for commercial interests, particularly Utah’s tech sector and nutritional supplement industry.

He supported bailing out the financial system in 2008 but opposed key proposals from President Barack Obama’s first term, including economic stimulus legislation and healthcare reform.

write to Richard Rubin at richard.rubin@wsj.com and Eliza Collins at eliza.collins+1@wsj.com.

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