Hatch gains a new 'seat' of power

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It took Orrin Hatch decades, but Utah's senior senator finally has landed a cherished spot on the Senate floor: an aisle desk right behind the Republican leader.

It helps that the desk once belonged to Harry Truman, former Utah Sen. Frank Moss and legendary Georgia Sen. Richard Russell.

Sen. Bob Bennett, meanwhile, inherited the desk in 1993 that his senator father, Wallace Bennett, had used about 17 years earlier. This year, Utah's junior senator, like Hatch, moved that desk adjacent to the coveted aisle.

This Senate shuffle -- a cross between the slowest form of musical chairs and the old real estate mantra "location, location, location" -- might seem meaningless to outsiders. But inside power-propelled Washington, the right desk in the right spot is key.

Not that the senators are there all that much. Nowadays they rarely sit at their desks on the floor -- as they did two weeks ago to cast their votes on the Democrats' health care measure. Still, most are proud of their places on the seating chart.

The more senior senators get their choice of desks and, almost every session, seat assignments shift with an election loss or retirement of a longtime lawmaker.

When he first arrived at the Senate in 1977, Hatch plopped down right on the front row -- although on the periphery. Every few sessions since then, the Utah Republican has inched closer to the center aisle.

Then came the 2008 election.

Pay dirt. At last.

The Senate's longest-serving Republican, Alaska's Ted Stevens, lost his re-election bid. So Hatch slid over to the senior Republican spot: second row, aisle seat, directly behind the GOP leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"I have a choice of where I sit on the floor," Hatch says, "and that is the No. 1 desk."

Although the desk Hatch uses once belonged to Moss (whom Hatch defeated in 1976), Russell and Truman among other renowned senators, the Utah Republican says, for him, it was more about the location. The former occupants, he says, are a welcome bonus.

"I didn't choose it because of who sat there before, although there were some very distinguished people who were there before me," Hatch says, noting an affinity for Truman.

Bennett asked for his father's desk when he entered the Senate in 1993. Crews unbolted it from its previous spot and plunked it down on the back row, off to the side, where newcomers often toil away their first several years.

"Every time I have moved locations," Bennett says, "that desk has moved with me."

The 6-foot-6 Utah Republican prefers his new aisle seat so he can step into the aisle to gesture while speaking from the floor.

"It's entirely a personal preference," Bennett says, noting some senators actually prefer the back row because they look better on television against the blue-walled backdrop.

The House replaced its individual desks for benches in 1913 as the chamber got more crowded. But the Senate, a bastion of tradition, still includes some desks dating back to 1819. Even those 48 desks are replicas of Congress' original desks, burned by the British in 1814.

"In the Senate, they still have the snuffboxes and the spittoons even though they don't use those anymore," Senate Historian Donald Ritchie explains. "They keep all the old parliamentary language, and they [still] have all the desks."

Before the Capitol expanded with two wings, the old Senate chamber included an even number of seats on either side of the aisle. Senators, Ritchie says, sat where they could find space.

When senators got their new chamber on the Capitol's north side, they still had no office space and worked much of their time from their desks. And, for a while, tourists could walk onto the floor to find their elected officials.

"There are stories," Ritchie says, "about senators coming in and finding some farmer reading the newspaper at his desk before the session would begin."

The historian can recount a load of comical and shocking stories dealing with Senate desks -- from a Union soldier who stabbed Confederate leader Jefferson Davis' desk with his bayonet to a former senator trading his key spot for a favorable vote.

One of the Senate's legacies -- dating to the early 1900s -- calls for senators to carve their names into the mahogany drawers before they leave office.

Bennett's desk doesn't yet show his inscription, but someday it will join his father's added decades before.


Fun facts

One of the Senate's newest traditions, dating to the 1960s, involves one senator, usually a new member, filling a drawer with candy to share with his colleagues. The so-called Candy Desk is occupied by Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla.

Three desks in the Senate are reserved for certain elected officials: The desks formerly occupied by Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Jefferson Davis. The Webster desk is reserved for the senior senator from New Hampshire (Although Webster represented Massachusetts, he was born in New Hampshire); the Clay desk is reserved for the senior senator from Kentucky (Though now occupied by the junior senator, Jim Bunning, because the senior senator is Republican leader Mitch McConnell); and the Davis desk is held for the senior senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran.

While the chamber's desks are usually arranged by party with Democrats on the presiding officer's left and Republicans on the right, sometimes there are so many people from one party that the desks spill over onto the other side. Those desks are called a Cherokee Strip, referring to the Oklahoma region that was once neither Indian Territory nor U.S. territory.

Source » Senate Historical Office