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Hatching Mischief

The Utah Senator angers G.O.P. leaders by pushing a health-insurance bill for kids. But, hey, it could pass

By James Carney/Washington

Hatch

(TIME, April 21) -- No, it was nothing new last week when Republican Senator Orrin Hatch joined forces with archliberal Edward Kennedy to introduce a piece of legislation. Hatch and Kennedy have teamed up so many times in the past 20 years that they've become the Senate's cliche odd couple. Nor was it shocking that Hatch, a conservative who led the defense of Clarence Thomas and is the Senate's foremost advocate of a balanced-budget amendment, wanted to lavish taxpayer money on vulnerable children. A grandfather 17 times over, Hatch has often championed laws that expand day care and fund child-nutrition programs. What was surprising is that the bill he and Kennedy cobbled together could turn out to be the only major piece of legislation to emerge from a do-little Congress this year.

No wonder Senate majority leader Trent Lott was so furious. Instead of working with his leadership to produce a Republican proposal, Hatch devised a bipartisan bill with Kennedy that Republicans will be hard pressed to oppose. Rather than create a Washington-run program, the bill gives block grants to the states to subsidize private insurance for uninsured children, pays for itself by raising taxes on cigarettes and then diverts $10 billion of the five-year proceeds to cutting the deficit. "It's good for children, it will reduce teenage smoking, and it will lower the deficit," Hatch says. "How can a conservative argue with that?"

Easily enough, if you're Lott, who publicly derided the proposal as a "big-government program" that would never become law on his watch. And although Hatch quickly gathered seven G.O.P. co-sponsors, other Republicans whispered contemptuously about what they described as his sanctimonious air. "Hatch is not a team player," a Senate Republican grumbled. In a more public backlash, the conservative National Review recently dubbed Hatch a "Latter-Day Liberal," a play on his Mormon religion that Hatch found offensive. As the fray mounted, one of the bill's co-sponsors, Robert Bennett of Utah, dropped out.

A maverick since he left his law practice in Pennsylvania, moved to Utah and later, in 1976, in his first try for elective office, beat an incumbent Senator, Hatch is accustomed to hearing complaints about himself from his more partisan colleagues. He has a 92% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, but nonetheless warns, "Anybody who tells me I've got to conform to their ideological point of view is going to be disappointed." Just last month Hatch, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, pushed through one of President Clinton's nominees to the federal bench despite objections from doctrinaire conservatives. Even though the nominee was confirmed 76-23, Lott publicly snubbed Hatch and voted no.

Not surprisingly, this latest Hatch-Kennedy effort is not dividing lawmakers along classic ideological lines: tobacco-state Senators like Kentucky Democrat Wendell Ford are certain to oppose the bill, while G.O.P. moderates like James Jeffords and Olympia Snowe have signed up as sponsors. It's got a fair shot at passing if only because, unlike Clinton's sweeping health plan, the Hatch-Kennedy proposal takes modest steps: it would cover only half of the 10 million children who lack health insurance. Conservative opponents say a better way to insure them would be to expand tax-sheltered "medical savings accounts" to the working poor. But the bill's supporters argue that MSAs won't work for cash-strapped low-income families that don't have the extra money to set aside.

Of course, in Washington there's no such thing as a pure motive. Hatch is savvy enough to know that co-opting such issues as children's health care and teen smoking from Clinton is good politics. And he knows that some people think he has his eye on the White House; on prominent display in his office is a letter from Muhammad Ali that reads, "To the man who should be President." Hatch says that during the last election cycle, he was approached about running. But he declined and belatedly endorsed Bob Dole.

Even now, the 63-year-old demurs when asked about his ambitions. He says he's happy being a Senator, a legislator who, as he puts it, "likes to work and get things done around here." Besides, he's busy nurturing a late-blooming secondary career writing lyrics to spiritual and patriotic songs. His first compact disc of 13 religious songs is due out next month. In a ballad dedicated to his wife and put to country music, Hatch wrote, "I've gotten everything I wanted, everything I've been hoping for." That's a claim Hatch's opponents hope doesn't stay true for long.

ODD COUPLE

Conservative Hatch and liberal Kennedy team up on children's health insurance:

What will it do?
Cover half the nation's 10 million uninsured children

What will it cost?
$30 billion over five years, paid for with a tax on cigarettes

Why could it pass?
It's pro-kids, anti-smoking and deficit friendly


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