Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, third in line for President of the United States because he carries the title of Senate Pro Tempore, has announced that he’ll retire at the end of his term. Oftentimes, when an announcement of this kind is made this early, the individual in question ends up leaving before the end of the term. That’s led to questions about how the line of succession will be affected by Hatch’s departure, whether it comes now or a year from now.
In real world terms, it doesn’t affect anything. Orrin Hatch was never going to become President of the United States unless Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan all dropped dead on the same day, or all resigned in such rapid succession that no new Vice President could be nominated and confirmed in between those resignations. Keep in mind that when Gerald Ford became VP, he wasn’t anywhere near the line of succession; Nixon simply nominated him to fill the vacancy, and the Senate confirmed him. But let’s say the line of succession did somehow fall to Hatch, or to the hole now being created by Hatch’s departure.
If Hatch left the Senate tomorrow, a new Senate Pro Tempore would immediately be chosen. The Republicans control the Senate, so they would choose one of their own party elders. John McCain is ill, so it might be someone like Chuck Grassley or Lindsey Graham, just to pick a few names. If the Democrats win the Senate majority in the 2018 congressional elections, Hatch will no longer be Pro Tempore anyway, as they’ll pick one of their own for the position.
The bottom line is that because the Senate Pro Tempore position would be filled as quickly as it’s vacated, there is essentially no chance of the presidential line of succession going beyond Pro Tempore. Then again, because the same is true of the Speaker of the House position, there was never a realistic chance of it getting to Pro Tempore to begin with. Realistically speaking, Orrin Hatch was never going to inherit the presidency. His retirement just confirms it.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report