Hatch, Kennedy made political theater as 'odd couple'

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1970.

Associated Press

Ted Kennedy was red-faced and yelling, pounding his Senate desk. Orrin Hatch waved his finger disgustedly at him as he returned verbal fire about a GOP labor initiative.

Then time for debate expired. Kennedy and Hatch shook hands and exchanged jokes. Their laughter echoed as they walked out slapping each other on the back.

Such was a typical day in the life of Washington's odd couple. The press for decades watched closely as they argued, often compromised, and made many laws as the self-proclaimed liberal and conservative became the unexpected best of friends.

It ended when Kennedy died Tuesday night. But they often talked about how the friendship formed, the laws it helped create, and some unusual twists it took — including Hatch once chiding a state GOP convention for attacking Kennedy and Hatch becoming an informal spokesman and defender for Kennedy during a scandal.

Back in 1990, just after the yelling-then-laughing exchange in the Senate, both talked together to the Deseret News about their friendship that was then just gaining notice.

"One of my motivations for coming to the Senate was to fight Ted Kennedy," Hatch said at the time, noting they were antagonists for years. They said they were forced to change in 1981, when Hatch became chairman of the Senate Labor Committee — and Kennedy was its ranking Democrat.

"Even though I was chairman, Kennedy had a 9-7 ideological edge on votes because two Republicans kept voting with Democrats," Hatch said. So he was forced to work with Kennedy to pass anything.

And Kennedy said the two found they often wanted the same general end results, and that they actually admired each other and their families.

"We have a difference in terms of perhaps how we are going to achieve the objectives, but I don't really feel that I have a difference with Orrin in terms of what the objectives ought to be. If you build upon that kind of understanding and respect, you can get a lot of things done," Kennedy said.

And they started to do things together. For example on child care, Hatch had long supported giving only tax breaks to make it more affordable. Kennedy wanted direct government grants and oversight of child care centers. They finally folded features of both approaches into one bill, and passed it.

Hatch said Wednesday, after Kennedy's death, "When we did agree, everyone turned to get out of the way. They thought if Kennedy and Hatch can get it together, it must be good."

Hatch also jokingly said, "He knew he'd get all the credit and I'd get all the blame, because conservatives can't understand why you would do anything with him."

Both caught heat for some of their initiatives. "We both had to fight our own sides to be able to do some of the things that are landmark bills today," Hatch said.

That included federal funding to fight AIDS (an especially heated topic of the time); the Americans with Disabilities Act to protect disabled people against discrimination and improve accessibility to facilities; regulation of advertising for prescription drugs; and creation of health insurance for the children of working poor.

A biography of Kennedy, "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy," says that when Hatch told Kennedy he persuaded Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., to support the Americans With Disabilities Act, he jokingly said that if the aging Thurmond really knew what was in there that he'd have a heart attack.

The bill for health insurance for children of the working poor caused a Utah Republican Convention in 1997 to pass a resolution condemning it. Hatch did not fold to that criticism, and instead lectured delegates in a half-hour response that he didn't care what they said, and he was going to help poor, sick kids anyway.

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