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Sen. Orrin Hatch's seniority a key issue during GOP candidate debate

Published: Wednesday, April 4 2012 10:06 p.m. MDT

Video replay: Utah Republican Senatorial Debate

DRAPER — The three GOP U.S. Senate candidates debating Wednesday night at Juan Diego Catholic High School agreed on almost every question: federal spending is out of control, power needs to be ceded back to the states, amnesty is not the solution to illegal immigration and the U.S. should not rely on Russia to get astronauts into space.

Their key disagreement, however, had more to do with chronology than ideology. Challengers Chris Herrod and Dan Liljenquist argued that incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch's 36 years in Washington had made him partly responsible for the nation's problems, while Hatch emphatically countered that his time in the Senate made him uniquely positioned as an agent for change.

Hatch frequently referred to his position in the Senate Finance Committee — he would chair the committee if Republicans gained a majority of the Senate in November — and presented himself as part of a two-man reform team with Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

"The finance committee is where it's all at," Hatch said. "Mitt knows it, I know it and he wants me there."

Herrod and Liljenquist, however, remained unconvinced. Herrod said that the seniority system was one of the biggest problems in the federal government. He said leadership is key and freshman lawmakers have the same opportunity to push for change if they make the effort.

The three candidates are vying for delegate support at the upcoming state Republican Convention, where either one of them will need 60 percent or more of the vote to avoid a primary or the two top contenders will face off in June for the party nomination.

For most of the debate before a capacity crowd, Hatch and Liljenquist traded barbs, leaving Herrod's statements unchallenged. During one particularly heated exchange, Liljenquist asked Hatch what he had been doing in the committee for more than three decades in terms of curbing the deficit.

"What's going to be different next time?" Liljenquist asked.

Hatch answered that for most of his time in the Senate, the finance committee had been chaired by Democrat senators. He also pointed to his record of co-authoring the balanced budget amendment, a cause that he has brought to the Senate floor 13 times and twice, he said, came within one vote of passage.

"Had we passed that amendment we wouldn't be in the awful state we are today," Hatch said. "Some of us really do work hard to get this country out of the doldrums."

Liljenquist, however, described Hatch's work with the balanced budget amendment as hypocritical. He said Hatch, in his six senate terms, had voted for a number of bills that added to the national debt, specifically dealing with Medicaid.

"You can't hold up the balanced budget in one hand and then hold up legislation that makes it impossible in the other," Liljenquist said.

Voting records were a focal point for Liljenquist, with the former state senator responding to television ads that charge him with missing one-fourth of his votes at the Capitol. He said that he was at the Legislature every day of the session but often was forced to miss Senate votes while he worked with lawmakers on bills reforming Utah's entitlement programs.

He said that when there was a close vote in the Senate, or a vote on a bill he felt particularly strong about, he would be called in to be counted. When he could afford to be absent, however, he was often in the House of Representatives helping to talk with lawmakers to get a Senate bill passed.

"I was not elected to pass multiple votes on unanimous bills," Liljenquist said, "but I was elected to get things done."

Hatch rebutted by saying that in 36 years in the U.S. Senate he had a 97 percent voting record.

"I can walk and chew gum at the same time," Hatch said.

In his closing remarks, Hatch again mentioned his position as a leader in the finance committee. He said with a Republican majority he would be the first Utah chairman in 80 years and poised to accomplish his main goals of repealing Obamacare, balancing the budget, reforming entitlements and cutting spending.

"This is definitely going to be my last term," he said, "but it's going to be the best doggoned six years you've seen. It will make a difference in so many ways."

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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