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Politics Complicates Hatch’s Finance Role

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Sen. Orrin Hatch has a reputation as a conservative deal-maker willing to work with liberals. But Members, and even the Utah Republican, say he is going to have much less wiggle room when he becomes the top Republican on the Finance Committee next year.

“There’s certainly less room [to negotiate], but I’m going to do what I’m going to do,” Hatch said in a recent phone interview. He vowed to at least try to reach bipartisan accord with panel Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

“There are people of both extremes that don’t want to do anything,” Hatch said. “I’m going to do what’s right regardless of the consequences. ... I’m not going to change.”

But circumstances don’t appear to bode well for Hatch’s and Baucus’ ability to forge compromises on taxes and entitlements in the coming years. After all, Hatch may have a challenge from his right flank in 2012, and his fellow Republicans have long resented Baucus’ cozy relationship with Hatch’s predecessor, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Conservative Senate Republicans said they feel comfortable with Hatch.

“Finance is one of the most important [panels] for us if we’re going to reform the tax code, fix Social Security and Medicare. So we need some boldness from our members,” conservative firebrand Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said. “Orrin’s one of my favorite Senators. ... I think he’s good with the other side, but he’s conservative. I think he’ll work with us on tax reform, on Social Security reforms. I know I can work with Orrin.”

Hatch also has less reason to trust Democrats to honor their agreements, after they reneged on a deal he and Grassley cut on children’s health insurance in 2008. And Hatch does not have a reputation for being nearly as flexible during negotiations as Grassley does.

But most people think it will be home-state politics that will make Hatch more reticent to wheel and deal. 

Finance member Jay Rockefeller praised Hatch’s bipartisanship on children’s health insurance, known as CHIP, but he noted Hatch is a “tough” negotiator who may be even tougher next year.

“He often comes around,” the West Virginia Democrat said of Hatch’s negotiating abilities. “And he often doesn’t, and now he’s going to be challenged from the right, so the chances of him doing that are probably lessened.”

Indeed, Hatch faces a likely primary challenge in 2012 after conservative activists were successful in ousting fellow Utah Sen. Bob Bennett this year at the Republican state convention. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is considering running against Hatch in two years.

Plus, a recent poll for the Salt Lake Tribune showed 48 percent of voters would vote for someone other than Hatch; only 40 percent said they would vote to re-elect him to a seventh term. 

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