SALT LAKE CITY – Orrin G. Hatch, the longest-serving Republican senator in history and a fixture in Utah politics for more than four decades, has died at age 88.
The retired senator's death Saturday was announced in a statement from his foundation, which did not specify a cause.
A staunch conservative on most economic and social issues, he also teamed with Democrats several times during his long career on issues ranging from stem cell research to rights for people with disabilities to expanding children’s health insurance. He formed friendships across the aisle, particularly with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
President Joe Biden, whose served with Hatch in the Senate over three decades, on Sunday described the Republican lawmaker as a fighter for the causes he believed in, but with a softer side including writing songs and poems that he shared with friends.
“To serve with Orrin, as I did for over three decades, was to see — and appreciate — both,” Biden said in a statement. “I saw that energetic, sharp-elbowed Orrin in the many battles we had over tax policy, the right of workers to join a union, and many others."
Hatch championed GOP issues like abortion limits and helped shape the U.S. Supreme Court, including defending Justice Clarence Thomas against sexual harassment allegations during confirmation hearings.
He later became an ally of Republican President Donald Trump, using his role as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee to get a major rewrite of U.S. tax codes to the president’s desk. In return, Trump helped Hatch deliver on a key issue for Republicans in Utah with a contentious move to drastically downsize two national monuments established by past presidents.
Hatch retired in 2019. Trump encouraged him to run again, but the longtime senator would have faced a tough primary and had promised to retire. Hatch encouraged Republican Mitt Romney, a Trump critic, to run to replace him.
“Few men have made their mark on the Senate as he did,” Romney wrote in a tribute to his friend and predecessor, praising his “vision and legislative accomplishment.”
Former Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa issued a statement recalling Hatch's help in securing conservative support for the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which Hatch would later rank among his most important accomplishments.
“Orrin was always a likable conservative, and until the advent of the Trump administration, willing to work with liberals to find common ground and compromises," Harkin said.
Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee called Hatch “a friend, a mentor and an example to me and countless others.”
Hatch was noted for a side career as a singer and recording artist with themes of his religious faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He is survived by his wife, Elaine, and their six children.
Hatch was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976 and served seven terms to become the longest-serving senator in Utah history. He became the Senate president pro tempore in 2015 when Republicans took control of the Senate. The position made him third in the line of presidential succession behind then-Vice President Joe Biden and the Speaker of the House. His tenure places him as the longest GOP senator, behind several Democrats.
One issue Hatch returned to over the course of his career was limiting or outlawing abortion, a position that put him at the center of one of the nation's most controversial issues. He was the author of a variety of proposed “Hatch amendments” to the Constitution aimed at diminishing the availability of abortions.
In 1991, he became known as one of Thomas's most vocal defenders against sexual harassment allegations from law professor Anita Hill. Hatch read aloud at the confirmation hearings from “The Exorcist,” and he suggested that Hill stole details from the book.
While unquestionably conservative, Hatch sometimes differed with conservative colleagues — including then-President George W. Bush when Hatch pushed for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research.
In 1997, Hatch joined Kennedy in sponsoring a $24 billion program for states to provide health insurance to the children of low-income parents who don’t qualify for Medicaid.
“He exemplified a generation of lawmakers brought up on the principles of comity and compromise, and he embodied those principles better than anyone,” Hatch Foundation chairman A. Scott Anderson said in a statement. “In a nation divided, Orrin Hatch helped show us a better way.”
Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, praised Hatch’s legislative acumen.
“Orrin’s decades of leadership drove an unending catalog of major legislative accomplishments and landmark confirmations,” McConnell said in a statement. “He entered the Senate as a young principled conservative in the 1970s when the modern conservative movement was in its infancy. He held to his principles his whole career.”
Hatch also helped usher through legislation toughening laws against child pornography and illegally downloading music.
The music-download issue was a personal one. A member of the faith widely known as Mormon, he frequently wrote religious songs and recorded music in his spare time as a way to relax from the stresses of life in Washington. Hatch earned about $39,000 in royalties from his songs in 2005.
One song, “Unspoken,” went platinum after appearing on “WOW Hits 2005,” a compilation of Christian pop music.
In 2000, Hatch sought the Republican presidential nomination, saying he had more experience in Washington than his opponents and could work with Democrats. Hatch acknowledged winning would be a long shot, and withdrew from the race after getting only 1% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. He endorsed George W. Bush.
He became a strong opponent of President Barack Obama’s 2009 health care law after pulling out of early bipartisan talks on the legislation. At one point, he said of the legislation: “It is 2,074 pages long. It is enough to make you barf.”
Hatch faced a tough re-election battle from a conservative candidate in 2012, two years after a tea party wave carried longtime Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett out of office. Both Bennett and Hatch voted in favor of a 2008 bank bailout that rankled the far right.
Hatch poured about $10 million into his 2012 race and worked to build support among tea party conservatives.
Hatch was used to playing tough — he learned to box as a child in Pittsburgh to fend off the attacks of older, larger students. Unafraid to fight, he said he always made a point to quickly become friends with those he had arguments with.
When Hatch announced he would not seek re-election in 2018, he said “every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves.”
After moving to Utah in the early 1970s, Hatch — a former bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — ran for his first public office in 1976 and narrowly upset Democratic Sen. Frank Moss.
In 1982, he held off challenger Ted Wilson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, to win a second term by a solid margin.
He was never seriously challenged again.
Orrin Grant Hatch was born in 1934 in Pittsburgh, to a carpenter and plaster lather. He married Elaine Hanson in 1957 and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1959. He received a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1962 and was a partner in the law firm of Thomson, Rhodes and Grigsby in that city until 1969. Later, he was a partner in the Salt Lake City firm of Hatch & Plumb.
His six children are Brent, Marcia, Scott, Kimberly, Alysa and Jess.