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Utah's Hatch longs for Senate's good ol' days

Published July 27, 2014 8:33 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Underneath the desks of the Senate majority and minority leaders are spittoons. I'm fairly sure that no sitting senators dip and spit these days — I haven't seen a member of the world's most deliberative body chewing tobacco recently — but the spittoons are still there.

The Senate is all about tradition. When a senator dies, aides mask his desk with a black robe and lay white roses. The most junior senator must supply candy to his or her colleagues. Departing senators etch their names into the desks they occupied.

And, once upon a time, senators actually got along.

Sen. Orrin Hatch wants to bring that tradition back.

The Utah Republican took to the Senate floor last week to begin what he said will be a series of speeches about how the upper chamber once worked and should again. Hatch, who has served 37 years in the Senate, noted that he and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., were on opposite sides of the political spectrum but combined efforts to pass compromise legislation. Others did the same.

"We regularly worked together in an orderly and constructive fashion to advance the common good," Hatch said last week. "And we routinely defended our institutional prerogatives against executive encroachment. Unfortunately, none of that is true of the Senate today."

Hatch's main concern: The Democratic majority's restrictions on the minority — from limiting amendments on the floor to reforming filibuster rules to make it harder to block bills.

"From our right to debate and amend through regular order, to our role giving advice and consent to the president's nominees, the Senate has emasculated itself," Hatch said. "By doing so, we only abandon our responsibilities, discard our authorities, and lay ourselves prostrate before a politically destructive president. It is past time to restore the Senate's rightful place in our constitutional order. I urge my colleagues — both Democrats and Republicans — to join me, to stand up and fight for the greatness of this body."

Hatch says he never has seen the Senate function so badly, and he notes that many senators are so new, they've never known a different way of doing business.

"Most importantly," Hatch said, "the American public has lost faith in this body and largely views the Senate as an institution characterized by dysfunction."

Washington is severely mired in partisan gridlock and, with a Democrat in the White House and Republicans running the House, the Senate is often where the partisan zeal comes to a head. The number of filibusters has more than quadrupled since 1980, according to the Brookings Institution.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last week that it has been clear for 5½ years that Republicans have opposed everything President Barack Obama has wanted.

"That is what they set out to do three days after he was elected, and they have stuck by that. Scores of ambassadors' positions are not filled, and legislation has gone wanting," the Nevada Democrat said. "They want to be able to show there is a Democrat in the White House and Democrats control the Senate, but the American people are not realizing a small minority can stop us from doing everything — and that is what they have done with the so-called filibuster, hundreds of them. I only hope this November people will respond, as I believe they will, and say: 'This is enough.' "

However voters decide this fall, Hatch pointed out the wise counsel of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who was heralded as a defender of the Senate's traditions.

Byrd, Hatch said, told incoming senators to "study the Senate in its institutional context, because that is the best way to understand your personal role as a United States senator. ... [Y]ou must find the time to reflect, to study, to read, and, especially, to understand the absolutely critically important institutional role of the Senate."

That's one way, Hatch said, for Americans to start ranking Congress above brussels sprouts and root canals.

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Burr has reported for The Salt Lake Tribune for nearly a decade from Washington, D.C. He can be reached at tburr@sltrib.com or via Twitter @thomaswburr.