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Who's Alan Frumin and why might he shape US health reform?

Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin becomes the top power broker on health reform if Democrats' 60-vote strategy fails.

By Staff writer / October 14, 2009

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

Courtesy of Congressional Pictorial Directory, Government Printing Office

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Washington

With Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine casting the first Republican vote for healthcare reform this week, Senate Democrats are upbeat that the goal of 60 votes to prevent a filibuster and get to a floor vote is within reach. But if the 60-vote strategy fails, Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin suddenly becomes Washington’s top power broker.

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Few people in Washington could pick him out of a lineup. (He’s the one whispering to the presiding officer.) But his rulings on Senate procedure can shape legislation more decisively than any lawmaker.

Master of Senate rules and precedent, the parliamentarian is also known for absolute discretion – and an aversion to publicity. Mr. Frumin, for one, rarely gives interviews and declined, through his office, requests to do so for this story. Nor would his office, tucked into a closed-to-the-public corridor in the US Capitol, release his biographical information.

“He’s a man who plays his cards very close to his vest, because he has to. Everyone is looking over his shoulder,” says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “He’s very serious about what he does, and he’s scrupulously neutral.”

Here’s why he’s about to be in the spotlight: Once healthcare reform moves to the Senate floor, procedural challenges – which could gut the legislation – will be the first line of partisan combat. This will be especially true if Democrats move the bill to the floor on a fast track called reconciliation.

A simple majority vs. 60 votes

And it’s the parliamentarian who makes the call on which points of order are valid.
In the reconciliation route, major bills can pass the Senate with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes needed for most major bills. But it also gives the minority powerful options to challenge any provision that does not contribute to reducing federal deficits. The parliamentarian’s rulings effectively decide what’s in or out of the legislation.

If it comes down to a procedural firefight, the bill could be carved up on the floor and wind up with more holes than “Swiss cheese” – a term now used by activists on both sides of the healthcare debate.

“Your guess is as good as mine what the parliamentarian will say. He is a god,” says R. Bruce Josten, top lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce.

Republicans say that having to rule on such key questions puts too much control in the hands of the parliamentarian.

“These can be very subjective calls. When the parliamentarian is called up to make them occasionally or rarely, the Senate accepts it. But several times a day, and it could really affect the credibility of the parliamentarian and hurt the office,” says Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference. “To thrust him into the healthcare bill so he’s virtually writing the bill is unprecedented and unacceptable,” Senator Alexander adds.

It's hard to be Mr. Neutral

That was hardly the intent when the post of parliamentarian was created in 1937. Rather, the parliamentarian is to be a neutral, nonpartisan professional who serves the whole Senate, although at the pleasure of the majority leader. It can be a tough balance to get right.