The most senior Republican in the Senate might seem like an odd ally for a president-elect who wants congressional term limits and advocates “draining the swamp.”
But such is the curious case of Orrin G. Hatch, the seven-term Utahn, who serves as Senate president pro tempore and the chairman of the Finance Committee.
Donald Trump was relatively unpopular in Utah this election, Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign made a play for Mormon voters, and independent alternative Evan McMullin picked off his share of Republican votes. But the 82-year-old Hatch endorsed the billionaire in May following a meeting with Trump and Republican Senate leadership and never looked back.
The decorous veteran lawmaker’s backing was significant, Don Peay, the founder of Trump for President Utah, said in a phone interview. “Hatch is the only elected official that was for Trump in the beginning and stayed with him through the whole thing,” Peay said.
The pair’s connection was solidified after the election when Trump’s transition team tapped Rob Porter, Hatch’s chief of staff since 2014, to assist. And the bond is likely to remain strong through the early months of the new administration, as Hatch’s longstanding desire to change the nation’s tax code and make major revisions to the 2010 health care law is likely to align with Trump’s.
Hatch not only worked to support Trump in the Beehive State, he also helped in neighboring states with significant Mormon populations, uneasy over Trump’s personal values and background.
The octogenarian even traveled to locales like Gilbert, Arizona, with Donald Trump Jr., days before the election, as Democrats thought they were making inroads in the Grand Canyon State.
“Truly grateful for his support and everything I have learned from him over the course of this journey,” Trump Jr. said of Hatch in a photo caption on Instagram. “A brilliant and great man.”
Peay said Hatch giving his seal of approval played an important role in “reaching out to the Mormon community in Arizona where Jeff Flake was on the wrong side.”
Flake, a fellow Mormon, was one of Trump’s most vocal GOP critics throughout the 2016 campaign and never came around to endorsing him.
A senior Republican aide who used to work for Hatch said that it was no real surprise his former boss stuck with Trump when others would not. The Finance chairman can be loyal to a fault, but he more often than not ends up having made the right move at the end of the day.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, can see benefits to a Hatch-Trump alliance, even if he may disagree on the substance.
“Chairman Hatch is widely respected and my sense would be that the president-elect would say that someone who is widely respected on both sides of the aisle is someone that he would listen to,” Wyden said.
Three top Trump priorities — rolling back the 2010 health care overhaul, making changes to the tax code and a big infrastructure package — will require significant work by the Finance Committee.
“There is no question that it’s going to require a special kind of endurance and a willingness to come to play every day,” Wyden said.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a senior member on Finance, said Hatch’s role will be especially crucial when it comes to rescinding the health care law.
“He’s chairman of probably the most significant committee in the Senate — in the Congress — when it comes to replacing Obamacare, which is going to be one of the first orders of business: to first repeal it and then have a transition toward a replacement. So, he’s going to be pivotal,” the Texas Republican said. “Sen. Hatch is going to be sort of the center of the universe when it comes to that replacement.”
Hatch said he envisioned a quick start on health care legislation, wanting to have something by the end of January. He favors a transition away from the current system, but dismissed the idea of waiting for a replacement before sending a signal about repeal.
“You’ve got to repeal first before you can replace,” Hatch said.
A trade discord?
It might take some work to get Trump and Hatch in sync on trade, however. Before the election, Hatch signaled he was working with the Obama administration to resolve issues to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact across the finish line in the lame-duck, an effort that was clearly sidelined with Trump’s victory.
Speaking in Salt Lake City after the election, Hatch said he thought Trump would be softening somewhat on policy.
“While I understand the President-elect’s desire to hold our trading partners accountable, there are definitely better ways to do that than some of the ideas that have been put forward so far,” Hatch said, according to The Associated Press.
Hatch has been telling reporters he is getting pressure from colleagues to seek another term in 2018, despite having indicated when he last ran that the seventh term would be his last.
“I have a lot of people pressuring me to, because they know what I can do. And they know that as chairman of the Finance Committee, we make a real difference around here,” Hatch said. “I’ll honestly look at it, as much as I can.”
His ability to form a partnership with President Trump could weigh into that calculation.