Senate parliamentarian: He's the only one both parties trust

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 24, 2010 

US NEWS PARLIAMENTARIAN LA

Alan S. Frumin, Parliamentarian of the United States Senate.

HANDOUT — Courtesy of Congressional Pictorial Directory, Government Printing Office/Los Angeles Times/MCT

WASHINGTON — Alan Frumin is barely known and rarely heard, but he could make or break the Senate Democrats' effort this week to put the final touches on President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul.

Frumin is the Senate parliamentarian, and his advice this week is crucial to Democrats' success as they battle Republican bids to derail the bill that's designed to add important fixes to the health care overhaul that Obama signed into law on Tuesday.

"I compare him to the umpire at a baseball game," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. "Everyone is rooting for one team or another, but he's going to call 'em as he sees 'em. His job is the honest broker."

Like an umpire, Frumin's guidance infuriates the losers, heartens the winners and could decide the ballgame. Rarely, however, do players publicly protest.

"You really establish relationships of trust with members of both parties, and people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt," said Kevin Kayes, a Washington lobbyist who served as assistant parliamentarian from 1987 to 2000.

The Senate on Wednesday continued considering the last piece of the Democrats' health care initiative, a "reconciliation" bill that would change parts of the new health law.

The House of Representatives passed the fixes package late Sunday, and the Senate is hoping to concur as soon as Thursday. Since 51 votes are needed, and Democrats control 59 seats, victory is virtually assured _unless Republicans succeed in winning an amendment. Then the House would have to approve it, too.

Or, should Frumin advise that a part of the bill could be inappropriate under the rules governing the special "reconciliation" process, the presiding officer of the Senate, who's always a senator from the majority party, currently the Democrats, would have to rule on how to proceed.

If he or she agreed with Frumin that something in the bill wasn't admissible, Democrats could try to overturn the ruling, but likely would need 60 votes, which probably would be unattainable. If the presiding officer disagreed with Frumin, he or she would be doing something rare in the tradition-heavy Senate — defying the referee.

Frumin, 63, a New York native and Georgetown Law School graduate, or one of his assistants, have been at the parliamentarian's desk in the front of the Senate chamber this week with a computer to the right and a glass of water in front. They consult with Senate staff on procedural questions, though many of the big decisions already have been made back in their spacious first-floor office. Both parties argue their cases separately.

"It's similar to an attorney-client privilege," Kayes said. "Conversations with both sides are confidential and privileged."

The parliamentarian's four professional staff members try to reach consensus. All staffers are nonpartisan, and their advice is usually conveyed orally.

Frumin, who earned about $170,000 in fiscal 2009, wouldn't comment for this story. Kayes described him as "someone out of central casting. He's made for this job. He's never been in involved in partisan politics, and is very thorough and thoughtful.''

Frumin first got the top job in 1987 when Democrats controlled the Senate. After Republicans took control in 1995, they named Robert Dove parliamentarian. Dove was dismissed in 2001 after complaints about inconsistent guidance, as well as his advice that Republicans would need 60 votes to put $5 billion into the budget to deal with natural disasters.

Then-GOP leader Trent Lott of Mississippi called on Frumin to reclaim the job.

"Republicans knew he was a Democrat, but it was hard to find anyone else to take the job. People think it's a terrible job," said Tripp Baird, Lott's former floor assistant.

The job has existed only since 1935. Until then, senators were either well-schooled in the chamber's rules, or relied on clerks to look up precedent. But clerk Charles Watkins became so proficient, Ritchie said, "they gave him the official title of parliamentarian."

The job gained stature as legislation became more complex and procedural tangles more numerous, especially during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights era. Then the Senate started assigning the parliamentarian more responsibilities, such as evaluating reconciliation provisions.

Frumin's advice is almost always decisive. Republicans thought their best shot at derailing reconciliation involved Social Security. By delaying the health care law's new excise tax on high-end insurance policies by five years, the GOP argued, Social Security revenue would be less than anticipated, a major change they said isn't allowed under reconciliation rules.

Frumin, however, told Republican staff in a short e-mail that he saw no problem — and that was that.

"That blew us out of the water," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Frumin has occasionally stirred senators' ire. In December, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tried to read the entire text of an amendment that was more than 700 pages long. Democrats wanted to pull the amendment; Frumin reportedly agreed.

Conservatives were unhappy. "That was unprecedented," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

They stopped short of criticizing Frumin publicly, however. Coburn would say only, "I trust him."

Democrats insist they're unlikely to challenge Frumin's guidance, even if it would upend the bill.

"His independence is something we all believe in," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. "I don't think we're going to overrule the parliamentarian."

ON THE WEB

Senate parliamentarian's salary

History of the parliamentarian

House roll call vote on Senate health bill

House roll call vote on reconciliation bill

Joint Committee on Taxation analysis

CBO analysis of Senate health care bill

CBO analysis of reconciliation legislation

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