- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

In some ways, Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin has accomplished every senator’s dream - without the chores of fund-raising and vote-seeking that mark the life of a lawmaker in modern elective politics.

Mr. Frumin doesn’t have to talk to a single voter, raise a dime or deal with reporters, but he will wield as much power over the fate of health care reform in the coming days as President Obama or any of the Democrats who control Congress. And, he’s becoming almost as famous.

“You’re our new celebrity,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, recently teased the bespectacled Mr. Frumin on the Senate floor.

But, the job of this mustachioed scholar of Senate procedure can also sound like a nightmare, especially with the stakes as high, and the partisanship so pronounced, as they are on health care.

Mr. Frumin’s outsized influence over health care stems from the fact that he’s one of only a few people who fully understand the rule that will govern the bill’s progress on the Senate floor. Technically, he’s only an adviser to majority Democrats. They can rule as he recommends or ignore him and rule as they please - and risk the wrath of a public already deeply suspicious of the whole process.

Also, they can fire him.

“I foresee a very miserable period for him,” said Mr. Frumin’s predecessor, Bob Dove, who was dismissed in 2001 when Senate Republicans, then in the majority, disliked his recommendations on the finer points of reconciliation, the special Senate procedure also being employed to help pass the current health care overhaul.

“I did not like it when I was there,” Mr. Dove said of reconciliation. “My sense is, [Mr. Frumin] will be happy when it’s over.”

On most days, Mr. Frumin is the Cyrano de Bergerac of the Senate. When Democratic senators - usually low-ranking freshman - take their turn presiding over the chamber’s routine business, it’s Mr. Frumin, seated just out of camera range but within whispering distance, who makes these lawmakers sound like they know how to run the place.

Reconciliation, however, is anything but routine.

Contrary to its name, it’s the most divisive procedure in the majority’s tool box because it blocks filibusters that might otherwise have been launched by the party in the minority at the time - this time, Republicans. So when health care reform comes before the Senate in pieces, it’ll be up to Mr. Frumin to divine - from a few rules and precedents and his own three decades in the Senate - what changes, if any, are in order.

Several Republicans launched a pre-emptive effort to discredit Mr. Frumin’s objectivity, a charge that Senate officials said upset him. But Mr. 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 Mr. Frumin since being elected to the Senate in 1992.

The parliamentarian’s official biography is brief: He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., holds a law degree from Georgetown University and is said to enjoy tennis, jogging and skiing. His wife’s name is Jill, and they have one child.

But Mr. Frumin, 63, is likely to have little time for his outside life in the coming weeks.

Already, anxious Republicans and Democrats have been vetting their ideas with Mr. Frumin on substance and the general choreography to be followed.

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

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 Mr. Frumin will have to make on-the-spot calls on which amendments are in line with reconciliation rules.

The questions coming Mr. Frumin’s way will test his skills, his patience and his fortitude. Among them: Is an amendment relevant to the underlying legislation, and, therefore, in order? Can the House pass the Senate’s health care overhaul but hold onto it until a separate reconciliation bill passes and then send the combined product to Mr. Obama?

Mr. Dove says he has given his old friend words of encouragement and predicts Mr. Frumin will do as well as anyone can in that job, under the circumstances.

“He is unflappable, he does his homework,” Mr. Dove said. “It’s a perfect personality for the job.”

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