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Washington • Senate leaders heralded Sen. Orrin Hatch on Thursday as the longest-serving Republican senator in U.S. history, while the Utah Republican turned the love-fest moment into a pitch to confirm President Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees and give him "a little bit of leeway for him to make some verbal mistakes."
As of Thursday, Hatch, who first took office on Jan. 3, 1977, had served 40 years, one month and six days, surpassing the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska as the longest-serving Republican senator. Hatch, who is weighing a run for an eighth term, still has a way to go before topping the longest-serving senator, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who was in office for more than 51 years.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opened the Senate session Thursday morning by praising Hatch, who is the president pro tempore of the chamber and was presiding over the morning ritual of a prayer and opening remarks.
"The president pro tempore is something of a legend in the Beehive State," said McConnell. "He's a published author. He's got gold and platinum albums hanging on the wall. And he's a great fighter for his home state. It's not hard to see why Utahns keep sending him back here."
McConnell said Hatch had established himself as "one of the most productive legislators in modern history."
"And he isn't slowing down any time soon," McConnell said. "He's actually getting more done than ever."
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called Hatch a "terrific guy" and an "honorable man" who has been partisan when he needs to be but also shown "tremendous independence," especially in working with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to pass bipartisan legislation.
"You can say on issue after issue after issue, he has risen to the occasion and been the best of the Senate," Schumer said. "And it's a fitting honor that he is here. Last time around when he was not thinking of running, I think in the hearts of most Democrats, it was hoped that he would run again. And that was because we so esteem him."
Hatch thanked the Senate leaders for their remarks and then quickly pivoted to raising concerns about the partisan nature of the Senate of late and defending Trump.
"I hope we can get out of this rut we're in right now, so that we can work together, so that we can feel good about being here and so that we can help this country," Hatch said.
Echoing previous remarks that Trump isn't a politician and is learning his way, Hatch urged Democrats to give the new president some leeway even as the Utah Republican said he doesn't agree with some of Trump's more caustic rhetoric.
"I personally wish he would choose his words a little more carefully because everybody in the world pays attention to the president of the United States," Hatch said. "On the other hand, I kind of find it refreshing that he doesn't take any guff from anybody. I like that."
Trump has raised concerns among political observers and longtime Washington hands with constant tweets and comments critical of those who oppose him, such as calling a federal judge a "so-called" judge after he stayed an executive order blocking all refugees and suspending travel from seven Islamic countries. (The travel ban has been suspended by a federal judge and is on appeal.)
On Thursday, Trump tweeted his disagreement with Sen. John McCain's concerns over a military raid in Yemen where several civilians and a Navy SEAL were killed, in addition to 14 al-Qaida fighters. Trump said McCain's criticism "only emboldens the enemy."
Hatch said the president isn't perfect and won't be, adding that "neither will any of us ever be perfect," but added that it's wonderful to have a non-politician from the private sector to pull "this country out of the stinkin' mess it's in."
"I also think we ought to be a little bit considerate in criticizing him because he's never held one of these offices. He's never been political before," Hatch said. "He's never been a politician. He's never done all of the things that such a background would be of assistance to him."
While Trump has never held political office before, he has long been a donor to political candidates and an outspoken voice in political matters.