Sen. Orrin Hatch and his challenger in the Republican primary, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, met Friday for their one and only debate before the June 26 primary.
Hatch touted his seniority throughout the debate, arguing that it would make him the most effective advocate for Utah. He promoted the fact that if Republicans win control of the Senate, he would be chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and able to steer important reforms to entitlements and spending.
“Literally 60 percent of the budget comes through that committee, and it’s a very, very important thing. And it takes a long time to even get on the committee, let alone become chairman. So that’s why I’m running,” said Hatch in his opening statement.
Liljenquist turned that argument on its head in his own opening statement, arguing that politicians in Washington are to blame for raising federal spending, entitlements and the debt. He also took a shot at Hatch’s age.
“I am running, senator, because you could be chair of the Senate Finance Committee, not in spite of it,” said Liljenquist. “In the 18 years on that Senate Finance Committee, you have voted yourself to expand entitlements by trillions of dollars we couldn’t spend.
“Look, we have got to have new leaders in Washington who are actually going to have to live through the next 40 years of this country, who will do more than just talk about reforming.”
Liljenquist didn’t let up, even when asked about how to defuse partisanship and rancor in Washington: “I will never go on television and point fingers at the other side, when my own record demonstrates that I acted the same way they did. I will not be a hypocrite. I don’t think any legislation gets passed by bashing people over the head on television. And you know what, I’m gonna work with the other side. I think there are patriots on both sides of the aisle who can do a little bit of math, who are interested in seeing reforms done and I found them here in this state. But you don’t do that by blaming Democrats for every issue.”
Hatch said he already was working with the other side. “I have a reputation for being able to bring both sides together. I’ve had a number of Democrat colleagues comes up to me and say, ‘You just simply have to win, you’re one of the few people who can bring us all together and get things going again.’
“And I don’t bring them together to spend money and blow money out the door, I bring them together to get things under control. And frankly, we need more of that today, not less.”
Both candidates said they were hoping for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn “Obamacare,” and they would work to repeal it otherwise. Hatch said that he was the first senator to raise the alarm about the unconstitutionality of the individual mandate — to which Liljenquist shot back that Hatch had proposed the mandate itself in the 1990s.
“It was Sen. Hatch and Ted Kennedy who expanded into children’s health care, a national children’s health care program, which is the underpinning of ‘Obamacare,” Liljenquist said. “It was Sen. Hatch, and the Republicans in Congress with George Bush, who expanded federal control over health care, by adding Medicare Part D to the rolls — the single largest expansion of an entitlement into health care federally since the ’60s. Republicans have pushed government into health care of the last 30 years, and very few have done more than Sen. Hatch to do that.”
Hatch defended Medicare Part D as a Republican bill that he said was founded on conservative principles that has provided prescription drugs to millions of seniors at a low cost. He also addressed his 1990s advocacy for the individual mandate, when it was put forward by the Heritage Foundation, in order to stop Hillary Clinton’s health care reform efforts — bluntly saying that he didn’t really mean it: “None of had given much consideration to the individual mandate. But when they finally put it in the Obamacare bill, my gosh, I was the first one in Congress to raise the unconstitutionality of it, and if we win on that case, it’s gonna be because we raised that issue.”
Toward the end of the debate, Hatch became clearly fed up with Liljenquist’s criticisms.
“Well let me get this straight. Apparently I’m responsible for everything that’s wrong in the federal government. That’s total B.S. and everybody knows it,” said Hatch. “Everybody who knows me knows that I’m conservative, that I fight for conservative principles. I fight to keep spending under control. I fight to make bills work.”
Liljenquist scoffed at Hatch’s argument that his chairmanship of the Finance Committee would benefit Utah — and even suggested someone else for the position.
“Look senator, what you don’t mention is who will be chair of that committee if you are not there. Sen. Mike Crapo from Idaho,” said Liljenquist. “If we take the chairmanship, take the majority of the Congress, it’s Mike Crapo from Idaho, who voted against TARP. He voted against the bailout. He voted against the creation of SCHIP, and the reauthorization of SCHIP. His votes on those issues are better than yours.”
“Well I’m gonna answer that, because they used this at the state convention,” Hatch shot back. “Mike Crapo came down here to endorse me, and go around the state with me.”
Hatch is in his first primary since he was first elected in 1976. At the state GOP convention this year, Liljenquist was able to keep Hatch just under the 60 percent vote among delegates needed to win the nomination outright. Utah is a strongly Republican state, so the winner of this primary is virtually assured of election to the Senate.
Hatch has some earlier omens that could make for a tough battle this time around against tea party insurgents. In 2010, his fellow Sen. Bob Bennett was eliminated at the convention itself, unable to even run for the nomination in a primary. And just over a month ago, Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar was defeated in his own primary after six terms — the same amount of time that Hatch has been in Washington.