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Politics Complicates Hatch’s Finance Role

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. 

“I’m no Bob Bennett,” Hatch told Bloomberg TV recently. “I think [voters] know that I’m not Bob Bennett. Bob was a conservative, but I’m more conservative than he is.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), who sits on the Finance Committee, said Republicans, including Hatch, are united in feeling they have a mandate from voters after the Nov. 2 elections.

“Given the election results, Sen. Baucus is going to have a whole lot less flexibility both on the committee and certainly on the floor,” Cornyn said. “And my hope is, and I think the hope of voters … is we’ll have more consultation, more bipartisan cooperation, on things we can work on and less sort of ‘my way or the highway.’”

Even though Hatch has been willing to compromise on key issues and had a close friendship with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Republicans and Democrats said Hatch is not enamored of the idea of striking an agreement for the sake of having a deal. That was a repeated criticism of Grassley and Baucus.

Much of the criticism of Grassley, who has been accused of keeping fellow Republicans in the dark and crafting deals that did not meet conservatives’ demands, is not valid, Hatch said. Still, he seemed to acknowledge the perception that Grassley could be less than transparent.

“Hopefully, I can run a more open committee,” he said, referencing the closed-door health care talks Baucus and Grassley engaged in during the spring of 2009. 

Hatch was briefly involved in those talks as part of the “gang of seven” —  four Republicans and three Democrats. But Hatch removed himself when he said he realized he did not agree with the direction the group was going. Baucus “respected that,” Hatch said.

In a statement provided by his office, Baucus said he is confident the two will have a good working relationship and that the tradition of building consensus on the committee will continue. 

“Sen. Hatch and I both come from western states where practicality and pragmatism are a way of life,” he said. Baucus noted the cooperation he and Hatch have had on the research and development tax credit and on CHIP.

Hatch asserted that he has “never felt burned by” the chairman. In fact, Hatch says he feels “burned” by the White House instead, particularly on the CHIP deal. 

Hatch and Grassley bucked not only their party but also then-President George W. Bush in crafting the bipartisan agreement in 2008. But when President Barack Obama and a larger Senate Democratic majority came into office, the CHIP deal was scrapped.

“I think it was an arrogance of the White House,” Hatch said.

Still, Democrats say that if they have to have a more conservative Republican atop Finance, they would rather have Hatch than any other. 

“Anything that can get done will get done due in part to the Baucus-Hatch relationship,” one Senate Democratic aide said.

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