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Utah Legislature: Lawmaker wants to rate senators

SALT LAKE CITY — Should Republicans and Democrats in the Utah Legislature give a formal opinion on who should be a U.S. senator from the Beehive State, or how the current two senators are doing their jobs?

State Sen. Howard Stephenson says yes, and he's introducing legislation to build a road toward that objective.

In the real world of Utah GOP politics, Stephenson's SJR17 could lead to embarrassment for U.S. Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, both R-Utah, who may be called on the carpet by their party's legislators for the pair's U.S. Senate votes, or even see a GOP challenger get the legislative nod over one of them.

Bennett seeks a fourth, six-year term this year and already has several formidable GOP challengers. Hatch says as of now he will seek a seventh term in 2012.

"We mandate nothing," said Stephenson, who has tried before to make Utah's U.S. senators somehow more accountable to the Legislature.

Under his plan, Stephenson says, should the Utah Republican Party desire it, Republicans in the state House and Senate would meet, discuss GOP U.S. Senate candidates and/or current officeholders, "and give a report, orally or written," to party leaders and delegates.

That could include an endorsement of the current senator, or one of his challengers, or criticisms and direction on states' rights issues.

The GOP legislative caucuses could also call the candidates/officeholders in to ask them questions or hear complaints.

Democrats could do the same thing for Democratic U.S. Senate candidates and officeholders, although there has not been a sitting Democratic U.S. senator from Utah since 1975.

Bennett addressed an open House GOP caucus last week, where he was told by one conservative representative that he held some responsibility for burying the nation in debt and that he shouldn't have voted for several federal entitlement programs. That could be just a taste of things to come, should Stephenson's resolution pass.

Bennett did not respond immediately to calls for comments on Stephenson's bill.

Hatch said the Legislature is free to discuss any issue it deems necessary.

"While I have not seen the language on this resolution, I always welcome ongoing communications between myself, and our state elected officials, particularly regarding the work I am doing in Washington for the people who elected me," he said. "I greatly appreciate feedback from our state legislators and I am proud of the work we accomplish together."

Stepheson's latest idea is a continuation of legislation he sponsored, unsuccessfully, several years ago. At that time, Stephenson called his attempt to make Utah's U.S. senators more accountable to the Legislature a "soft repeal" of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1913, which required popular election of U.S. senators.

Before then, state legislatures picked two senators from each state.

Stephenson said, "It was the great compromise" by the Founding Fathers to break Congress into two bodies, a Senate which represented the interests of the states themselves, and the House, popularly elected representing the will of the citizens.

Now the U.S. Senate often does not represent the interests of the states, Stephenson says.

"We need to hold (U.S. senators) to the values of federalism and states' rights," he said.

The 2010 Legislature has turned into a states' rights lovefest, with dozens of bills and resolutions introduced that, in one way or another, call on the federal government to give power back to the states.

Dave Hansen, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, was careful how he responded to Stephenson's idea.

Noting that he has not talked to Stephenson about his proposal, Hansen declined to say that he would favor the state GOP asking Republican legislators in some formal process to asses either candidates or sitting U.S. senators.

"As a party we are always interested in getting input from Republicans on all issues, especially input from our elected Republican officeholders," Hansen said.

But he doesn't rule out the process Stephenson suggests. Hansen couldn't predict if the state GOP's executive committee, central committee, or a state GOP convention itself, would vote to ask for the Republican lawmakers' opinions on U.S. senators and candidates.

"We do have a formal process" in assessing U.S. senators and candidates — "anyone can run for the office," said Hansen. And in that race they can share ideas about how the current officeholder is doing.

Asked his own opinion of how Bennett and Hatch are dealing with "federalism and states' rights issues," Hansen said while no officeholder will do what everyone likes all the time, Bennett and Hatch "on the whole have represented Utah very well."

e-mail: bbjr@desnews.com