By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rare is the Tea Party-tested Republican senator who hangs an image of the Kennedys' Hyannisport home over his desk and shows off the painter's personal inscription.
"Orrin," reads the note, scribbled below a cobalt-blue sea. "We'll leave the light on at the compound for you anytime. Ted Kennedy, '91."
The beacon of bipartisanship that defined their odd-couple relationship still guides Utah's Orrin Hatch. He didn't advertise it as he wooed and won over the tea partiers who, two years ago, toppled fellow conservative Robert Bennett from his Senate perch.
But now, with his state's Senate GOP nomination in hand and re-election to a seventh term all but assured, Hatch, 78, can think about his legacy.
He's very clear about what he wants: As the senior Republican in the Senate, his party's top voice on the tax-writing Finance Committee, Hatch wants a deal that restructures the tax code while also slowing and even stopping the government's accumulation of debt. To get it, he says he'll practice the art of compromise over the take-my-marbles-and-leave mentality that has tied up Congress in recent years.
"There has to be a course correction," Hatch said in a recent interview. "If I am chairman of the Finance Committee, you can bet your sweet bippy I will take a leading role."
A new tax code, he says, would have to be bipartisan to pass Congress and, as importantly, have credibility with the Americans who will fork over large chunks of their paychecks under it. Orchestrating it will require a delicate touch with Washington's most muscular interest groups and stubborn factions of both parties.
In the vaulted Capitol hideaway office he inherited from Kennedy — the seascape hanging nearby — Hatch offered a reality check on how lawmaking happens.
"Neither side is going to get everything they want," he said. "But it is important that we move ahead, and that we do the art of the doable to pull this country out of the fiscal morass it's in. And I think we can."
Hatch can be so explicit about compromise now because he is the ultimate Senate survivor:
—Of his own stern, televised reading of "The Exorcist" during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
—Of a failed presidential bid in 2000 that was dwarfed by the George W. Bush juggernaut.
—Of his vote for the 2008 bank bailout, an apostasy to the same tea partiers who ousted Bennett.
—And in June, of the first real threat to re-election since winning his Senate seat in 1976.
Washington's political tribal chiefs know that the conservatism Hatch has emphasized in his re-election campaign co-exists with an interest in getting results on Capitol Hill and a long-demonstrated willingness to compromise.
The type of real, red-faced debate that delighted Hatch and Kennedy also produced landmark laws like the American Disabilities Act and children's health insurance. With former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, the bellowing begat federally subsidized child care. Tense talks with no less a partisan than Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., produced a patent exemption that cleared the way for the generic drug industry.
Hatch's last two years of ideological purity — a 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, compared with an average 84 percent rating the previous five years — may have been driven by a survival instinct, but it still irritates some.
Vice President Biden recalled how the Utah Republican was an original co-sponsor of his 1994 bill that became the Violence Against Women Act, only to vote against its renewal and expansion this year.
"Orrin and I always had a good personal relationship. We disagreed on a lot but where we found common ground, we worked together," Biden said in a statement to The Associated Press. "I hope those days return."
Tax reform could well be Hatch's enduring legacy. The contours of the debate are clear and broadly philosophical: Republicans think the government levies enough taxes already but growing the economy would produce more revenue. Democrats say the wealthiest are not taxed enough.