The start of the 114th Congress brings a pair of new roles for the senior-most Senate Republican: president pro tem and chairman of the Finance Committee.
Shortly after the Senate convened Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, was elected president pro tem, the Constitutional post that puts in line for the presidency behind the vice president and the speaker. The position comes with a security detail and an ornate office on the first floor of the Capitol, vacated by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.
"You get a beautiful office. I left it in perfect condition with one exception: I cleaned out the liquor cabinet. ... I knew you wouldn't need that," Leahy joked at a Tuesday afternoon reception for Hatch, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The longest-serving member of the majority party has held the role of president pro tem under a Senate tradition that dates back to 1890. Hatch was first elected to the Senate in 1976, arriving two years after Leahy.
Hatch aides say he is planning to be active in trying to bring back the Senate's sense of debate. Asked about the new position, Hatch sought to dismiss the idea that the post is purely an honorarium.
"I know one thing. It's not ceremonial. It's a very important role. You know, you're a member of leadership and I'm part of the leadership team," Hatch said. "Not that they ignored me before, but it just gives you a place at the table ... in every decision."
"I'm going to just keep learning about it and try to do the best I can," he added.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who will wield the gavel of the Judiciary Committee (a post once held by Hatch), previously ran the Finance Committee. In the Iowa Republican's view, that's the most important of Hatch's new titles.
"Sen. Hatch is a person that carries a lot of weight around the United States Senate. I don't think that being president pro tem adds to that. I think his study of the issues and knowledge about the issues and his sensitivity to, you know, working with colleagues," Grassley told CQ Roll Call. "His importance is going to be on being chairman of the Finance Committee more than being president pro tem."
The Finance Committee is going to be a busy place in the new Congress, as Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told the crowd at Hatch's reception, where Portman highlighted the dual roles of pro tem and chairman.
"With that combination, he is going to be involved in everything. When you think about it, the great issues of our day that we are going now to have the opportunity to address, including tax reform, including expanding trade opportunities, including health care reform — reform the reforms — every single one of these he will be front and center," Portman said.
A Finance aide said Hatch plans to move forward on a revival of trade promotion authority, calling the return of fast track authority to negotiate trade deals a "top priority" in the new Congress.
Hatch won bipartisan praise at that overflow gathering in the Finance Committee's hearing room on the second floor of the Dirksen Building, where he seemed surprised by the number of senators present.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called Hatch "a man who is so honorable and has meant so much to this institution."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., pointed to their work on visa issues and the effort to repeal the medical device excise tax created by the Affordable Care Act, which Hatch has already identified as a priority for the Finance Committee. That's one of the bipartisan measures that could have a chance to advance early in the 114th Congress on health care policy.
Hatch's agenda also includes plenty of work at the Judiciary Committee, where he's long been a leader on patent issues. His office said he would be pushing for a long-awaited overhaul of patent laws to curb frivolous litigation.
The Judiciary Committee, of course, also considers judicial nominations, including those to the Supreme Court. Notably, Supreme Court Justices Atonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg stopped by the reception honoring Hatch on his new role as a constitutional officer.
"Sen. Hatch has sat for the confirmation hearings for so many of my colleagues. I guess from me on," Scalia said. "He voted right. He voted for me. He voted for Ruth ... those were good calls. He has been a stout defender of the third branch, and we are grateful for that."
Hatch's junior colleague from Utah, fellow Sen. Mike Lee, said at the reception he had two signed posters in his bedroom as a teenager.
"One was of Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, and another was of Orrin Hatch," Lee said.
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