Parliamentarian is rock star in healthcare debate

Healthcare expert, Alan Frumin, sleeps in office and on call 24/7 to help resolve issue

Published March 17, 2010 12:46PM (EDT)

When Congress battles over thorny bills, parliamentarian Alan Frumin has been known to sleep in his office -- on call 24/7 as the Senate's Solomon, divining the answers.

Frumin's ability to review long-standing rules and centuries of precedent to resolve Senate questions makes the mustachioed parliamentarian something of a Washington rock star these days. As much as any elected official, Frumin, 63, holds decisive power over whether the Democrats' rewrite of the health care system survives or sinks.

"You're our new celebrity," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., recently teased the bespectacled Frumin on the Senate floor.

It's fame in true Washington fashion as Frumin, an unelected Senate staffer who won't do interviews, wields outsized influence over the fate of President Barack Obama's signature domestic issue, the health care overhaul. That's every senator's dream, without the fundraising and vote-seeking chores that mark their daily elective lives.

But the parliamentarian's job can sound like a nightmare, too, especially with the stakes as high as they are on health care.

"I foresee a very miserable period for him," said Frumin's predecessor, Bob Dove, who was fired in 2001 when Republicans, then in the majority, disliked his recommendations on a budgetary matter.

Several Republicans launched a pre-emptive effort to discredit Frumin's objectivity, a charge that Senate officials said upset him. But Frumin maintained his public silence, and the criticism was short-lived. Now, Senate Republican leaders at worst say they will have to trust him to be fair; others are more complimentary.

"People know he's fair," said Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, who has known Frumin since being elected to the Senate in 1992.

"I've had disagreements with Alan a number of times," Gregg added. "He tries very hard to look at the precedents, to be fair. ... I have no problem at all with him."

Fortunes ride on the fate of the health care bill after a year of torturous debate that has taken a toll on Obama's standing and the public's trust in Congress. Health care changes will affect one-sixth of the nation's economy and every American -- millions of whom will elect or toss out lawmakers come November.

So when the Senate debates the health care bill under a rule called reconciliation that few others understand, all eyes will be on the parliamentarian, a man whose official biography is brief: He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., holds a law degree from Georgetown University and enjoys tennis, jogging and skiing. His wife's name is Jill, and they have one child.

For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have been busily vetting their ideas with Frumin on substance and the general choreography to be followed for health care legislation.

"It's a pretty involved set of conversations," said Eric Ueland, who was chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. "It's intense, and it can be frustrating."

That's behind the scenes -- often in Frumin's ground-floor office in a private corridor near the historic Senate Appropriations Room.

There's no comity over health care, so the atmosphere is especially toxic. Once the overhaul bill emerges from the House later this week, the drama moves mostly to the Senate floor during a tightly controlled session of debate and, later, unlimited amendments decided in a series of votes dubbed the vote-o-rama.

That's when Frumin will have to make on-the-spot calls on which amendments are in line with reconciliation rules.

Reconciliation is the most divisive procedure the majority can employ because it blocks the filibusters that might be launched by the minority. The very mention of using the procedure, designed for legislation that directly affects the budget, inflamed already poor partisan relations on Capitol Hill. But Democrats say blanket Republican opposition to their reform plans left them no choice.

Only a few parts of the overhaul are headed for passage by reconciliation. That puts the nonpartisan Frumin front and center. His rulings really are recommendations that the majority party can follow or ignore, risking the wrath of a public already distrustful of one-party rule in Washington. It's not uncommon for angry senators and even House members to summon the Senate parliamentarian to private meetings to account for an unfavorable ruling.

And the Senate majority leader can fire him.

Reconciliation, as Dove described it, is the bane of any parliamentarian's existence.

The questions coming Frumin's way will test his skills, if not his patience. Among them: Is an amendment germane to the underlying legislation, and, therefore, in order? Can the House pass the Senate's health care overhaul but hold onto it until reconciliation passes and then send it to Obama?

"I did not like it when I was there," Dove said of reconciliation. "My sense is, he will be happy when it's over."

By Laurie Kellman

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Healthcare Reform