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Washington • Sen. Orrin Hatch took his seat behind the minority leader just before noon Thursday, assuming a perch as the senior Republican in the hallowed body and the longest-serving U.S. senator in Utah history.

"It's no big deal," Hatch, 78, said later when asked about his new status. "Well, not to me."

But it was a hard-fought battle for him to return to the Senate as he faced challenges from within his own party and campaigned, arguably, the hardest of his 36-year career in politics.

On Thursday, he laid claim to his prize: a seventh and, he says, final term.

With six years to go, Hatch pledged to tackle the big issues from his post as the top-ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

"I just feel very blessed to have this opportunity again," Hatch said. "I know what I can do, and I'm in position to get things done that have never been done before. [I'm in a] good place to make some changes to get this country back on its feet."

Hatch's position as the senior Republican could also land him another honor if the GOP takes control of the Senate during the next six years. If the Republicans take charge, Hatch would become Senate president pro tem and third in line of succession for the presidency.

Right now, that spot belongs to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has served with Hatch on the Judiciary Committee for decades and is the sole sitting member with greater longevity, after taking office in 1975.

"He's a young guy," Leahy, 72, joked about Hatch after the two greeted each other just off the Senate floor.

Not that long ago, it looked as if Hatch might be forcibly retired when a slew of Republicans declared bids against him in the wake of tea party champion Mike Lee's defeat of three-term Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010.

But Hatch spent millions and, with the help of a flood of new delegates elected at neighborhood caucuses, he survived the Republican convention and went on to defeat primary race challenger and former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist.

Thursday, after introducing his family to Vice President Joe Biden in a ceremonial swearing-in, Hatch strolled into the Judiciary Committee's vaulted room to a packed crowd of aides, supporters, lobbyists and friends. They piled up in line to congratulate him.

And it was Bennett's replacement, Lee, who had refused to endorse anyone in Hatch's race until the primary was over, throwing the party.

"I look forward to continuing to work with him," Lee said. "He has an immense reservoir of knowledge and wisdom from which I can draw, and he's been a good mentor for me."

Hatch is now the fourth-oldest senator and will, by the end of his term, have served half his life in the Senate. But he was spry on Thursday, hopping from one event to the next and glad-handing everyone who came near him.

He repeated several times that he felt "blessed" to be re-elected.

"It's never going to go to my head," Hatch said. "I'll put it that way."