SALT LAKE CITY -- Lawmakers from the only state that rejected a constitutional amendment allowing for the direct election of U.S. senators are still looking for ways to influence who represents the state -- nearly a century after the 17th Amendment was passed.
The Utah Senate approved a bill Monday clarifying that political parties can seek the opinion of state lawmakers when choosing their nominees for U.S Senate.
The idea is that the 3,500 delegates who choose nominees in heavily Republican Utah would pay close attention to what the Legislature thinks of incumbents' records on states rights -- a hot topic issue among conservatives here.
Senate Bill 250 is sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, a Draper Republican who contends the 17th Amendment was a mistake. Before the amendment's ratification in 1913, state legislatures were responsible for electing U.S. senators.
Stephenson has said he favors a repeal of the 17th Amendment but acknowledges that would be too difficult.
"I believe this would enhance the attention our U.S. senators give to the state and to the state legislature," Stephenson said.
Since 2006, Stephenson has been trying to find a way to give state lawmakers more influence in Washington.
Past efforts would have allowed the Legislature to provide direction to the state's U.S. senators and require them to provide periodic reports to state lawmakers on how they're complying with that direction. U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, scoffed at that notion when he visited in 2007 to address the Legislature as he does every year.
"I'd be happy to have direction, happy to have counsel, happy to have input," he said. "But I don't think you need the Legislature to do all that."
Stephenson's bill passed Monday 20-8, largely along party lines.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he didn't think Stephenson's bill was a bad idea, just that it was unnecessary.
Indeed, the chairmen of the Utah Republican and Democratic parties both said there's nothing to stop parties from consulting legislators already.
"We could do that right now without the bill," said GOP Chairman Dave Hansen. "It's one of those issues I rarely, if ever, hear about. ... It certainly does not rank with health care as an issue. There's a lot of other things delegates are more concerned with right now."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said his party already gets input from its legislators, but Democrats have no desire to institute a formal process to get their blessing when choosing nominees.
"There's no doubt in my mind what (Sen. Stephenson) would have us do is polarize this country more than it already is, to have U.S. senators beholden to state legislative leaders -- especially in states where leadership tends to be very partisan and very ideological," Holland said. "That would be just a disaster to our country."
SB250 now advances to the House. The legislative session ends Thursday.