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Orrin Hatch just announced he’ll retire from the Senate

After 40 years in Congress, Hatch’s retirement could open the way for Mitt Romney.

Members Of Senate Finance Cmte Speak To Press After Meeting With Trump Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) will not be running for reelection in 2018, the 83-year-old Senate veteran announced Tuesday, opening the field for Republicans like Mitt Romney to run for his seat.

Hatch, who has had the nation’s tax code, health care policy, and trade policy at his fingertips as the chair of the Senate’s indelibly powerful Finance Committee for the past two years, has gone back and forth on his 2018 plans.

In November, Hatch, who would be 90 by the end of another term, said he had plans to run again, citing his reluctance to give up his position in Republican leadership. Evidently his mind has changed.

“Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves. And for me, that time is soon approaching,” Hatch, who came to Congress in 1976, said.

Conversations with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and informed outside observers suggest that of late, Hatch’s title has been just that, painting portrait of a chair who hasn’t been leading the charge in major policy debates. After 40 years in the Senate, answering why is a trickier question.

“There are two explanations: Either Hatch isn’t up for the job or the members of the committee wouldn’t support him if he were up for the job,” James Wallner, a political scientist with the conservative R Street think tank and former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee, told Vox in November of the veteran senator’s chair position.

In the first year of a Republican-led government, the result has been an atrophied body in the Senate with purview over the pillars of Trump’s agenda, a reality that has already had major implications for millions of Americans. And in Utah, a state skeptical of the Trump presidency, with anti-Trump voice Mitt Romney reportedly ready to jump into the race, Hatch’s retirement could spell trouble for the president.

In Utah, a growing eagerness for new leadership

Rumors over the future of Hatch’s Senate seat have been swirling for months.

Hatch himself escalated a possible Mitt Romney run; he has since been poised to campaign for the seat. Reports of Trump trying to convince Hatch to run for reelection closely followed — likely the president’s attempt to avoid having a loud anti-Trumper like Romney in the Senate.

Hatch has tried to toe a line between Trump and his home state of Utah, a deeply red state that was less than enthusiastic about the Republican presidential candidate in 2016. (Last-minute independent candidate Evan McMullin, who ran on a specifically stop-Trump platform, received 21 percent of the vote.)

But Hatch has always remained close to the president, defending Trump throughout.

It hasn’t played well in Utah. A July poll from the Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics found 78 percent of voters in the state wanted to see Hatch retire after this term, with 57 percent saying he should "definitely not" run for reelection. Hatch polled 1 point behind the Democratic candidate.

The Salt Lake City Tribune’s editorial board blasted Hatch for pondering another term, over the holidays calling it “an unquenchable thirst for power.”

Hatch’s own words seemed to confirm this in an interview with the Wall Street Journal when he floated a run back in November: “I’m planning on running again because I still have the chairmanship of the Finance Committee and they’ll never be another Utahan that’s chairman of the committee, at least not for 40 or 50 years.”

Already there’s been a lot of discussion of primary challenge in the state, and waiting on Hatch’s highly anticipated announcement has made Republicans in Utah uneasy.

“The feeling is he is holding the field hostage by running out the clock,” Derek Miller, the CEO of Utah’s World Trade Center, told the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins in December. “If Romney decides to run I will gladly lend my support to his candidacy. If Hatch runs again and Romney stays out, I believe you will see many Republicans seriously consider getting in the race.”

An aging Congress is coming under scrutiny

Hatch’s announcement comes as what has become that oldest Senate in history enters an election year — a reality that has become an open area of criticism.

“It is now clear that the large number of older senators in positions of power is taking a toll on the operations of Washington,” Paul Kane wrote in the Washington Post, after Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), who is battling brain cancer, and Thad Cochran (R-MS), who has had a series of medical issues in recent months, were absent from the Capitol.

The 84-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) reelection campaign announcement was met with similar consternation from her own party, critiquing Feinstein as a relic of an old Democratic Party, Jeff Stein wrote for Vox.

A recent Politico article called Cochran, who chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee, which oversees billions of dollars in government spending, “frail and disoriented.” The senator, who turned 80 last December, “hasn’t presided over a hearing since early September,” Politico’s John Bresnahan and Anna Palmer wrote, but he intends to remain in Congress until the end of his term in 2020.

Hatch was on the Post’s list of aging and less involved senators.

Ronald Reagan Signing Voting Rights Act
Orrin Hatch stands behind Ronald Reagan, as he signs an extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982.
Bettmann / Contributor

When Congress took up Obamacare repeal in early 2017, Hatch’s committee seemed far removed from the action. In June, asked what justification Republicans had for ramming through their health care bill after decrying Democrats for doing the same with Obamacare, Hatch interrupted to declare indignantly: “We had 36 hearings on Obamacare!” seemingly defending how Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009.

Matt Whitlock — Hatch’s communications director, whom the senator is rarely seen without — trying to quickly usher the senator into the elevator, turned to clarify.

“I understand what you’re asking,” he said — as if the senator had not.

Months later, Hatch would hold one hearing on Graham-Cassidy, the last-ditch Obamacare repeal effort. After that push failed, he proposed a conservative Obamacare stabilization package with his House counterpart Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), but only as a late reaction to bipartisan work already being done by the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

The Senate Finance Committee’s muscular legislative culture has faded

Hatch’s inaction has become an open conversation among top congressional staffers.

“The committee has not been operating as it used to,” one Democratic Senate aide said. “Some of the best legislators in Congress are on the Finance Committee, and committee members and staff have been frustrated.”

There’s no question that committees, much like “regular order,” have less of a role in today’s Senate on high-priority legislation. But even as committees are diminished, the Finance Committee is still one of the most powerful. The Finance Committee has jurisdiction over Trump’s major campaign promises, from repealing Obamacare and trade to passing the massive tax bill.

The tax bill made it past the finish line in December, and in the end, it seemed Hatch, who was on an initial tax policy working group with top House, Senate, and White House leaders, had largely put the policy load on four other senators. It was done under the guise of “coalition building,” committee staffers told the Washington Post. But it put the role of leaders like Hatch in question.

“I felt like it was really Pat Toomey primarily writing the bill along with Rob Portman, with an assist from Thune and Scott,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who joined the Finance Committee in 2017, said. “It felt like those four people were the ones in charge.”

McCaskill added that it didn’t “feel” like Hatch had a robust role in the negotiations at all. Congressional staffers, lawmakers, and outside observers have noticed that Hatch, who took over the committee in 2015, has let the power of the committee become near obsolete.

U.S. Senate Debates Tax Reform Bill
Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch.
\Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"Health Care, tax, trade deals are in our jurisdiction,” one committee staffer said. “We thought we would be very active in having negotiations. Even on the Democratic side, senators are interested in being in the debate."

Since Trump took office and Republicans gained a majority in both the House and Senate, the Finance Committee has held fewer than 20 total policy hearings. And most of the committee’s action has been focused on executive appointments. There have only been two major markups: one on the Senate’s tax bill, and another to extend funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a piece of legislation that’s often called “Hatch’s baby” and still hasn’t been fully renewed or funded beyond March 2018.

"The Senate Finance Committee has had a strong reputation for being thoughtful, substantive, and, dare I say, bipartisan at times," a former finance aide said. That’s not the mantra of Republican leadership today.

This year, the committee has a reputation for sitting idle, occasionally going through the motions of legislating.

To be sure, it might be as much direction from leadership as it is Hatch himself.

While a seat on the Senate Finance Committee remains to be among the most coveted positions in Congress, typically filled by Congress’s most talented legislators and political tacticians, it’s become clear that the Republican leadership has made the calculation to keep most high-profile negotiating outside committee rooms and hidden away in the Senate leadership’s offices.

“The way to explain the inaction is a combination of basically a lack of aggressiveness on the part of the chairman and a sense that they need to control these issues on the part of leadership,” Wallner said. “It just looks like leadership and the committee chairman, who have all been here for a long time, have completely forgot how to do their jobs. They have forgotten how to legislate.”

There have been serious policy implications: CHIP, widely seen as “Hatch’s baby,” has languished

When the budget for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers roughly 9 million children, was set to expire in September 2017, and the rest of the Senate was busy toiling away on what would be yet another failed Obamacare repeal effort, many widely expected Hatch to figure it out.

After all, there’s an understanding in the Senate that even if the majority leader is in charge, there’s nothing Mitch McConnell can do to stop committee chairs from setting their own agendas. This happened with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, who went forward with a bipartisan fix for Obamacare marketplaces even while Republican leadership hammered away at repeal. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) likewise pushed the Russia sanctions bill even if it needled the president.

But Hatch’s initial efforts on CHIP dissipated quickly when Republicans turned to their tax bill.

It was Hatch who had forged CHIP with then-Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in the late 1990s — one of the Utah Republican’s great bipartisan accomplishments. But 40 years into his career, as he serves as the chair of the most powerful committee in Congress, it hasn’t been renewed — a stopgap measure was shoved into the continuing resolution to fund the government at the end of the year.

"I worked on the reauthorization of CHIP in 2007, and I actually have been shocked that it has still been expired — I would be surprised if has ever been expired for this long,” a former Finance Committee staffer said.

Staffers blame Republicans’ Hail Mary attempt to repeal Obamacare in September — Graham-Cassidy, a health care proposal developed outside the Finance Committee altogether.

But even after that repeal effort failed, the CHIP funding deadline came and went, the House passed a partisan bill funding the program, and Hatch’s negotiations continued to atrophy. By Thanksgiving, Finance Committee ranking member Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) had nothing to report. Nor did Hatch.

For now, the program has temporary funding into March. Progress on a more permanent deal doesn’t appear to have improved.

When I asked about it in November, Hatch said, almost a whisper, “I think we’ll get that done, but we still...” trailing off as the door to the Senate train closed between us.

Whitlock, again by his side, clarified: “Still have to work on it,” he shouted, his voice muffled through the closed glass door.

It’s like Hatch has a translator, a fellow congressional reporter mused after a scrum with the senator.