In stormy Senate, a timely moment of truce

Amid intense partisan wrangling this week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah – honored Thursday for his 40 years of service – highlighted the vanishing art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Joshua Roberts/REUTERS
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, shown here on Jan. 11, gave an impassioned plea to his Senate colleagues on Feb.9 to rise above partisan gridlock. He was speaking after being honored as the longest-serving member of the Senate.

It’s storming on Capitol Hill.

Democrats, pushed by their convictions and their base, are loudly fighting the president's nominees to his cabinet, pulling two back-to-back all-nighters on the Senate floor this week to voice their objections and delay a process they are powerless to stop.

Republicans are pushing back, crying “obstruction!” and using an obscure Senate rule to shut down a leading liberal voice, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as she read civil-rights objections about a fellow senator – now the new attorney general.

And yet, Thursday morning found the Senate unexpectedly in that eerily quiet eye of the storm, where the partisan winds briefly stopped their howling.

The occasion was the recognition of Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah as the longest-serving Republican senator in history – 40 years, one month, and six days. The two majority and minority leaders – at loggerheads since the start of the new Congress – put down their swords and heaped praise on their colleague.

The Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, showed Senator Hatch to be more than a politician – pointing out that he is also a songwriter with gold and platinum albums.

The main point, though, was Hatch's key role at the head of powerful committees and his productive career – only possible because he's learned "the art" of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

The Democratic leader, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, several times looking over to smile at the tall, silver-haired Utahan, described him as a “terrific guy" and an “honorable man” – partisan when he has to be, yet independent enough to work many times with the late liberal lion, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

'I'm concerned about this body'

Hatch responded to all of this unexpected praise with a kind of "Gee, shucks, guys" attitude. Then, in off-the-cuff remarks, he pleaded for patience with President Trump and for senators to work together.

“I’m concerned about this body and how it’s going. I’m also concerned about the president,” he said.

The conservative senator, a devout Mormon, said he wished that Trump “would choose his words a little more carefully.” On the other hand, he added, “I kind of find it refreshing that he doesn’t take any guff from anybody.”

He praised the president’s cabinet choices, and asked the Senate to be “a little bit considerate in criticizing" Trump, because he’s not a politician and is a brand new president coming out of the private sector. Give him a chance, he said.

The unusually slow pace of confirming cabinet nominees clearly bothered him.

"I'm hoping that we can still have our fights and still have our arguments and still have the enjoyable aspects around here of comradeship and working with each other," said Hatch. "But I'm hoping that we can set aside some of these animosities, give the president his cabinet and his leaders, so that he has at least a shot at pulling this country out of the mess it's in."

Matchmaker for a new 'odd couple'?

Then he used his stature to invoke earlier days, and his work with Senator Kennedy. The two became known as the “odd couple” for their ability to find common ground despite their deep ideological differences.

“I miss Senator Kennedy. I could talk to him,” he said, contrasting Kennedy’s earned respect with an unnamed someone who goes “popping off on the Senate floor” because of presidential aspirations. He seemed to be talking about Senator Warren, whom he had sharply criticized for her floor speech Tuesday evening.

He wound up with high praise for both Senators McConnell and Schumer, saying “these are two really potentially great leaders. Together, they could really help us save this country.”

If they could dial back the fighting. “We have to have some politics here or this would be an uninteresting body. But we don’t have to have it on everything,” he added.

It was not a commentary without a conservative viewpoint, or even a barely hidden dig at another member. And it was not delivered by someone who himself – and his party – also play hardball.

But it was a reflection of that Senate spirit – disagreeing without being disagreeable – which seems to be fast disappearing in this body.  And it did not go unacknowledged by Schumer.

“I thank my friend from Utah and for his kind words and much more importantly for his distinguished service to this country,” he said.

And then the winds resumed, the party differences flared, and the Senate adjourned at 2:30 a.m., having tussled its way to a party-line confirmation of Tom Price as the next secretary of Health and Human Services.

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