Orrin Hatch, Longest-Serving GOP Senator with Decades of Influence on American Life, Dies at 88

A fixture in Utah politics, Hatch had a career spanning more than 40 years: "A man of wisdom, kindness, character, and compassion," his foundation said

FILE - Former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, arrives before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, for Attorney General nominee William Barr. Hatch, who became the longest-serving Republican senator in history as he represented Utah for more than four decades, died Saturday, April 23, 2022, at age 88. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Retired Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican in the chamber, died Saturday afternoon surrounded by family, his foundation confirmed in a statement. He was 88.

A cause was not given.

Hatch was a major conservative legislator whose politics — from championing religious freedom and pushing to limit abortion access; backing Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in Thomas' controversial confirmation hearings amid a disputed sexual harassment allegation; and his role in policies supporting Americans with disabilities and seeking health care reforms — put a lasting imprint on the country in a 42-year political career that spanned 1977 to 2019.

Hatch, who also made history as the longest serving senator from Utah, authored or co-authored several major pieces of federal legislation before announcing his retirement in 2018.

Among those laws is the anti-discrimination Americans with Disabilities Act, the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act, the State Children's Health Insurance Program and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

More recently, Hatch was a key force behind a $1.5 trillion tax cut signed into law in 2017 by then-president Donald Trump.

His foundation noted, in paying tribute to him, that he had focused particular attention on certain Utah issues including working with the Central Utah Project, for water development, and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

"Jill and I and the entire Biden family are saddened to learn of the passing of Orrin Hatch," President Joe Biden said in a statement on Sunday.

He went on: "Orrin Hatch once shared in an interview that he had a soft side, and he had a tough side. To serve with Orrin, as I did for over three decades, was to see—and appreciate—both."

As an obituary in The Salt Lake Tribune put it this weekend, Hatch's longevity made him the state's "political godfather, starting or furthering the careers of generations of Republicans."

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Matt Sandgren, executive director of Hatch's foundation, issued a statement hailing his influence on "tax and trade" and "religious liberty and healthcare."

Born in 1934, Hatch experienced poverty and hardship at a young age before working his way up in politics. In addition to his work in the Senate, Hatch was an amateur boxer and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, though withdrew early in the primary process.

He was also a songwriter, if only of one tune: "Headed Home," about his friend and ideological opposite Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died of brain cancer in 2009.

"Senator Orrin G. Hatch personified the American Dream. Born the son of a carpenter and plaster lather, he overcame the poverty of his youth to become a United States Senator. With the hardships of his upbringing always fresh in his mind, he made it his life's mission to expand freedom and opportunity for others—and the results speak for themselves," Sandgren, director of Hatch's foundation, said in a statement.

Sandgren continued, "He was a profoundly positive influence in the lives of those he served, whether they were the constituents he helped over four decades of casework, the hundreds of interns he sponsored in both Utah and DC, or the robust network of Hatch staffers who carry on his legacy to this day. Senator Hatch touched the hearts of countless individuals, and I know I speak for all of them when I say he will be dearly missed."

FILE - In this June 28, 2018, file photo, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, attends a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Hatch bemoaned the disappearance of political civility, kinship and cross-party collaboration during a farewell speech Wednesday, Dec. 12 where he called the Senate a legislative body in "crisis." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, file)
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Hatch served through seven presidents and held a variety of high-powered roles in the Senate, including as chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, now known as the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and as chairman of the Finance Committee and (twice) as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Though he was a staunch conservative, Hatch had a knack for bipartisanship to forge ahead on certain issues.

"A man of wisdom, kindness, character, and compassion, Orrin G. Hatch was everything a United States Senator should be," A. Scott Anderson, chairman of the Hatch Foundation, said in his own statement.

"He exemplified a generation of lawmakers brought up on the principles of comity and compromise, and he embodied those principles better than anyone," Anderson said. "In a nation divided, Orrin Hatch helped show us a better way by forging meaningful friendships on both sides of the aisle."

Hatch is survived by his wife, Elaine, and their six children as well as grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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