SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch lamented political discord while calling for civility in a divided Congress and nation in his final speech in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.
Hatch, 84, also said he hopes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act most defines his legacy as he leaves office next month as the longest-serving Republican senator in history.
The seven-term Utah senator thanked his wife, Elaine, his six children, countless staff members and colleagues, and "my Father in heaven who has allowed me to serve much longer than my detractors would have hoped."
Several senators, Republican and Democrat, stood to praise Hatch as a husband, father, statesman, patriot and effective legislator, noting he has passed more than 800 bills into law.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, called him a "towering political figure" not only for his generation but for those to come.
In his 30-minute speech, Hatch said that before President Abraham Lincoln beckoned people to heed the better angels of their nature, he warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand.
"That warning is especially relevant in our time. Today our house is as divided as any time since the Civil War," he said. "Each year, red and blue America drift further apart."
Hatch, who served as chairman or ranking member of a major committee for 32 of his 42 years in office, said the Senate is in "crisis," the committee process is in "shambles" and regular order is a "relic" of the past. Compromise is now synonymous with surrender, he said
He identified the loss of comity, which he called the connective tissue of the Senate, and genuine good feeling among senators as the root of the dysfunction.
"In recent years, that cartilage has been ground to a nub. All movement has become bone on bone," he said. "The pain is excruciating, and it is felt by the entire nation."
Hatch questioned whether the kind of relationship he had with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., could exist today, if two people with polar-opposite beliefs and from vastly different walks of life could come together as often as the two of them did, citing consequential legislation from the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the Ryan White bill and the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP.
"Or are we too busy attacking each other to even consider friendship with the other side?" Hatch said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said though no one believed it could happen last year, the Senate reauthorized CHIP, passed foster care reform and started transforming Medicare because Hatch reached across the aisle. Millions of children, foster families and seniors are benefitting as a result, he said.
Hatch said nowhere is a pluralist approach more needed than in the "fraught" relationship between religious liberty and LGBTQ rights.
"Religious liberty is a fundamental freedom. It deserves the very highest protection our country can provide," he said. "At the same time, it’s also important to take account of other interests, especially those of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters."
Hatch said it would be a mistake to turn the issue into a zero-sum game, adding there are some who would make the religious community and LGBTQ advocates into adversaries.
Utah lawmakers were able to strike a compromise between religious freedom and protections for LGBTQ resident, he said, adding that one of his final acts as a senator is to challenge his colleagues to find a compromise on the issue.
Lee, who served as a page for Hatch as a teenager, said the senator was tough when he had to be and kind when he didn't have to be. He recalled Hatch once taking the Senate cufflinks from his shirt and handing to him as a gift.
"I felt just like a rock star had given me his guitar after a sold-out concert," Lee said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Senate is sad to bid farewell to its "artist-in-residence," a nod to Hatch's songwriting prowess that earned a platinum record. He described Hatch as a former "all-star" missionary and bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who still practices what he preaches.
McConnell called Hatch a living example of the American dream, "this Pittsburgh fighter who climbed up from working poverty and became ‘The Gentleman of the Senate’ — where he dedicated his work to strengthening that ladder for the generations that would follow."
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Hatch has always been known as an "encourager," recalling a campaign event of his to which Hatch lent his gravitas.
"Orrin has a heart as big as all outdoors," Cornyn said.
Hatch said gridlock is the new norm in Congress, and limbo the name of the new game because the bar of decency is so low that jumping over it is no longer the objective, Hatch said.
"How low can you go?" he said. "The answer, it seems, is always lower."
Something has to give, the status quo cannot hold, Hatch said.
"These are, or should be, the United States of America. While that name has always been more aspirational than descriptive, it at least gives us an ideal to strive for," he said.
Restoring civility requires that everyone speak responsibly.
"That means the president. That means Congress," he said.
Hatch said the media deserves some culpability for creating an environment that favors outrage over reason, and hyperbole over truth. The loudest voices — not the wisest ones — now dictate the terms of public debate, he said.
"For evidence, simply turn on the TV. But be sure to turn down the volume."
The country must reject the politics of division, starting with identity politics, which when institutionalized caused people to lose sight of their shared values, Hatch said. In time, he said, people see each other not as fellow Americans united by common purpose but as opposing members of increasingly narrow social subgroups, beginning the "long descent into intersectional hell."
GOP Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, who will succeed Hatch, noted in a tweet that Hatch charged his colleagues to foster greater mutual respect, pluralism, dignity, comity and unity.
"His record of legislative accomplishment is unparalleled; his call for greatness is characteristic of this man of vision," Romney said.
Hatch concluded his speech saying, "Mr. President, this is the last request I will ever make from this lectern — that as a Senate and as a nation, we listen to our better angels; that we recommit ourselves to comity; that we restore civility to the public discourse; that we embrace wholeheartedly the principles of pluralism; and that we strive for unity by rejecting the rhetoric of division."