WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin G. Hatch is about to get a new assignment as a direct result of term limits.

Talk about your textbook case of irony.

At the commencement of the 112th U.S. Congress in early January, Hatch will ascend to the role of ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has served as the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee for several years but is being forced out of the post because of a 6-year term limit for such positions that the Republican party internally imposes on its senators.

The sheer breadth of spending that falls under the auspices of the Senate Finance Committee is staggering. For example, three federal expenditures that combined to cost American taxpayers $1.428 trillion during fiscal year 2009 — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — are all within the committee's jurisdiction. As the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee in a Democrat-controlled Senate, Hatch will set the GOP's agenda and work in tandem with committee chair Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

"The Finance Committee is arguably the most important committee back there in the Senate," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. "For (Hatch) to have a minority leadership role is big."

With Hatch up for reelection in 2012, how he performs in his new post will play an integral role in determining whether his political career survives to realize a seventh term or falls prey to the voracious ambition of an up-and-comer like Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

The most pressing issue for Hatch on the Finance Committee is to ensure that the Bush-era tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 set to expire on Jan. 1 receive a reprieve in the form of an extension lasting at least two years. Even though Hatch hasn't officially become the committee's ranking Republican, he's already flexing his leadership by strongly speaking out in favor of extending the tax cuts.

"I think we have to stop these tax hikes that are set to hit every American," Hatch said during a recent phone interview with the Deseret News. "It would be the largest tax increase in history. … It's a matter of great concern."

Of less urgency but equal import to Hatch are lowering corporate tax rates, implementing research-and-development tax credits and simultaneously capping the estate tax at 35 percent while raising its exception levels.

Last week co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson of President Barrack Obama's bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform released preliminary proposals for reigning in the national debt, a topic squarely within the scope of the Senate Finance Committee.

Although Hatch hedges on a few of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations — for instance, he doesn't endorse their plan for deep cuts to defense spending — the senator generally agrees with most of the co-chairs' proposals such as slashing the corporate tax rate, cutting government spending and restructuring federal tax revenue streams.

"We need to get the corporate tax rates down," Hatch said. "They're currently at 35 percent, and this president wants to go to over 40 percent. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are both (my) friends … and they're suggesting that we reduce corporate tax rates down to 26 percent. That would make us more competitive. We're losing a lot of our international businesses because of our stupid tax structure.

"To give you an illustration, back in 1980, of the 50 largest corporations in the world 41 of them were U.S. corporations. Today, 30 years later, of the 50 largest corporations we only have 16. That's because we've taxed our people and made it so difficult to do business in the country that they've left."

Even as Hatch embraces being the ranking minority member on the Senate Finance Committee, he's also looking forward to 2012 — the time when a potential Republican takeover of the Senate majority would ostensibly transform his role on the Senate Finance Committee from ranking Republican to outright Chairman.

"If Republicans take over the Senate in 2012," Jowers said, "and (Hatch) takes the (Finance Committee) chairmanship, that would be huge."

Without prompting, Hatch willingly paints a picture of his dream scenario for 2012 that has him chairing the Finance Committee under a Republican president. And make no mistake: if he has his druthers, that GOP Commander-in-Chief will be Mitt Romney.

"If we get the (Senate) majority, I'll determine the whole (Finance Committee) agenda," Hatch said. "If we get the majority and hopefully a Republican president, we can bring this country back to where it should be and keep it there. I'm in a position to be able to do that.

"Romney is head and shoulders above every other (presidential) candidate. He has the economic wherewithal and capacity to do what has to be done. Can you imagine if Romney is the president and he has me as the chairman of the Finance Committee … can you imagine what could be done?"

Of course, any hope Hatch has of eventually becoming chair of the Senate Finance Committee is predicated on winning reelection. And that's far from a foregone conclusion because of the looming possibility that Chaffetz challenges Hatch in 2012.

"It all comes down to Jason Chaffetz, who's a real force in the state," Jowers explains. "The odds on Sen. Hatch (being reelected) depend some on Chaffetz's choice. If Chaffetz enters the race then it will be a real hotly contested and probably national profile senate race. If Chaffetz decides to stay in the House or do something else, then I like Hatch's odds a lot."

Chaffetz's hasn't said what he plans for 2012.

"I don't consider (Chaffetz) a threat," Hatch said. "He's a very nice young man. I've done some checking in the House — unsolicited, I've had a few of my very powerful friends over there say that if he'll concentrate in the House, he'll have a future there. I think he's coming to that conclusion.

"Now, you know, I don't have any trouble with people who have ambitions. But let's just leave it as that — all I can say is, I wish him well and I'll help him every time he asks and I hope that he'll concentrate on doing the job there, and if he will then he should be there a long time."

At 76 years old, Hatch prides himself on outworking aides half his age and purportedly maintains a rigorous work schedule including four hours of sleep per night, rising before the sun and coming home after sunset.

"I think (my health) comes from a lot of things," Hatch said. "It comes from having been raised in poverty where I had to scramble and fight for everything I've ever had in life. I take good care of myself, I exercise virtually every day, (and) I faithfully take dietary supplements. I just try and stay in shape."

With any luck, he could even enter the realm of a Robert Byrd or Strom Thurmond, who in recent years stayed in the U.S. Senate until the ages of 92 and 100, respectively.

"As long as I feel confident and healthy and revved up like I do," Hatch reflected, "if my folks here in Utah want me to keep helping them, I'm going to do it."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com