Rolly: Hatch is going out on top, but history will show whether he overstayed his welcome

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) President Donald Trump is joined by Sen. Orrin Hatch at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, to sign a presidential proclamation to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.

Whether you believe the massive tax package just passed by Congress and the shrinking of two Utah national monuments by Donald Trump’s executive order were good or bad decisions, neither likely would have occurred without Sen. Orrin Hatch.

Whether his influence on those two significant course changes turns out to help or hurt the country, I can point to other reasons why the longest-serving Republican senator stayed on one term too long.

Hatch leaves a complicated legacy as Utah’s longest-serving senator. Sometimes, he postured as a strict partisan hack and special interest champion while other times he emerged as the conservative yin to a liberal counterpart’s yang to pass bipartisan legislation that benefited millions.

He was the strongest force on the Senate Judiciary Committee a quarter-century ago that pushed through the nomination of conservative and controversial Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in blatantly partisan fashion.

Yet he supported wholeheartedly the nomination of Democrat Pat Shea to head the Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration — even though Shea ran against him in 1994.

Hatch was harshly criticized for using his considerable clout to hold up Clinton judicial nominees to a short-staffed federal bench — unless he got his personal favorites appointed to fill openings in Utah. Still, he backed Democrat Scott Matheson Jr.’s nomination to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Hatch, a consistent sponsor of frivolous anti-flag-burning amendments and divisive balanced-budget measures, usually when a Democrat occupied the White House, nonetheless showed his bipartisan sensitivities by helping to pass bills that were part of a liberal agenda.

Early in his career, Hatch teamed up with then-Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., on several important issues.

Hatch, the tall, handsome Mormon from Utah, and Waxman, the short, bald Jew from California, were affectionately referred to on Capitol Hill as the odd couple.

Together, they shortened the patent-protection period for numerous types of prescription drugs, allowing cheaper generic versions to enter the market more quickly to benefit the poor and the elderly.

He and Waxman also united to set up a fund for so-called “downwinders” — mostly in Utah, Nevada and Arizona — harmed physically by atomic bomb tests during the 1950s.

Hatch won cheers for those efforts at the same time he endured jeers for his coziness with big pharmaceutical manufacturers and the dietary supplements industry.

The conservative cougar from Utah became a close friend to the liberal lion from Massachusetts. He and Sen. Ted Kennedy collaborated on legislation to help low-income and marginalized Americans. Their most significant achievement: the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides low-cost medical coverage to millions of needy kids.

Hatch also co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act to combat the scourge of domestic violence and the DREAM Act to help children born to undocumented parents thrive and become productive Americans.

In his earlier years, Hatch emphasized constituent services and built a reputation of using his office to help Utahns navigate the federal bureaucracy.

Including me. Hatch went out of his way to assist me when I was in Washington doing a story about the heavy influence Utahns and Mormons had during the George H.W. Bush administration.

During an interview in his office, the senator gave me the names and telephone numbers of several Utahns in high positions in federal departments. He then called the White House — twice.

Within 10 minutes, he had set up appointments for me with Roger Porter, Bush’s domestic affairs adviser, and Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser.

At another time, Hatch got me an interview with the normally press-shy Clarence Thomas, who probably realized he owed Hatch his seat on the high court.

But Hatch changed after 2010, and his last term has been more bitterly partisan and contentious than at any other time in his career.

History will judge whether Hatch’s two big victories this year — tax reform and the monuments’ reduction — will be seen as hallowed or hollow.

Hatch also reversed himself on other past achievements. He changed his tune on the Violence Against Women Act, blaming Democrats for putting a bunch of “liberal” tweaks in the renewal bill. He has not used his influence forcefully enough — so far — to preserve CHIP, although he says he still supports it. And he did an about-face on the DREAM Act, tilting toward Trump’s harsh stance on immigrants.

The change came after his GOP colleague Bob Bennett lost at the Utah Republican Party Convention in 2010, and Mike Lee eventually claimed that seat.

Bennett, who arguably would have won re-election had he been on the ballot, fell victim to the newly emerging and rabid tea party faction.

Hatch seemed spooked by Bennett’s ouster at the hands of a few thousand delegates. When Hatch faced re-election two years later, he spent millions identifying core supporters in each neighborhood and ensuring they had enough backing at their caucus meetings to be elected as delegates.

After securing a seventh term, his demeanor, rhetoric and policy positions veered further to the right as he signed onto more partisan tactics. He refused to even hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and voted to eliminate the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to confirm Trump’s pick, ensuring that, henceforth, extremists on both sides of the political spectrum will be able to win confirmation with just 51 votes.

Whether history smiles or frowns on Hatch’s signature accomplishments on taxes and public lands, his final term may be remembered less for statesmanship and more for partisanship.

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Staff photos of the Salt Lake Tribune staff. Paul Rolly.