Calling shots in the Senate

Alan Frumin, a bookish fellow, was squirreled away at his desk in a windowless room of the U.S. Capitol this week, jacket off, eating his lunch. He is the chief parliamentarian for the United States Senate, a man you wouldn’t recognize in a job you’ve never heard of. But he could blow up President Obama’s whole healthcare bill.

Whether the landmark health insurance overhaul flies or falls, it will be due in no small part to this 63-year-old master of minutiae whose decisions could reshape one-sixth of the U.S. economy, not to mention the political fates of dozens of Democrats.

His job is to interpret two centuries of arcane Senate rules and precedents and decide what is procedurally correct. To C-SPAN viewers, he is the anonymous fixture at the desk below the Senate dais, whispering instructions to whoever is running the show.

Most of the time, his role is pretty low-key. When rookie senators utter with confidence things like “The motion is out of order,” it’s usually because Al Frumin just told them what to say.

When the healthcare bill comes to the Senate floor in the next couple of weeks, though, the stakes go up. Frumin will decide what Democrats can or cannot put in the bill under the fast-track process called reconciliation, which they plan to use to get around a Republican filibuster. Whatever he allows in can pass with 51 votes, which Democrats have. What he rules out needs 60 votes, which they don’t.

That’s why Frumin, who has been doing this kind of work in obscurity for 33 years, is suddenly making headlines: “The Man Who May Decide Health Care.” “The Most Important Man in America.”

This sort of attention is a big change for Frumin, whose last on-the-record interview appears to have been with Congressional Quarterly. That was 22 years ago, and he’s not about to start talking now.

“I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup,” one leadership aide said.

Senate historian Donald A. Ritchie met Frumin 30 years ago and they’ve never so much as had lunch. “I’ve seen him in the cafeteria a couple of times,” Ritchie said.

New York Magazine scoured Google images looking for clues about the man who could decide healthcare, and came up with this: “Frumin has a mustache, and doesn’t like giving interviews. He traveled to Germany in 2006 and India in 2008, and attended Barack Obama’s inauguration, as well as his White House luau . . . Sometimes he wears cut-off jean shorts.”

Anyone who has watched C-SPAN knows the Senate’s conduct can swing wildly from magnificent decorum to circus antics. As the healthcare vote approaches, let’s just say they are setting up the tents. Frumin will be somewhere in the center ring.

“Holy hell,” is what Donald Wolfensberger, the former House Republican rules guru, predicted the parliamentarian’s scholarly existence is about to become.

“The pressure will be incredible and as a result, his life will not be all that pleasant,” said Robert Dove, Frumin’s predecessor, who teaches at George Washington University.

Dove knows from unpleasantness. He held the parliamentarian’s job for 35 years and was fired twice, once by the Republicans and once by the Democrats.

No wonder Frumin is keeping a low profile. Even people who have known him for decades know little more than the bare bones of his personal life. (Attended Colgate University in upstate New York, then Georgetown Law; married lawyer Jill Meryl in 1981, has one daughter, lives in Maryland . . .)

He’s also a very slow jogger.

Senators from both sides are already marching into Frumin’s tiny office to turn up the heat. This being Washington, one thing is for sure: No matter what he does, somebody is going to hate him.

Republicans bent on blocking the bill will attempt to stall with something known as a “vote-o-rama,” back-to-back roll call votes forced after 20 hours’ debate. It is the picture of congressional chaos. All 100 senators, plus staff, swarm the floor for hours, camping out in hallways. The longest one, after a budget debate in 2008, involved 44 rapid-fire votes over two days.

There are no limits on the number of amendments that can be offered, only the stamina of Republicans who aim to block the bill. If the Democrats want to force them to stop, they will need Frumin on their side. Or they’ll have to overrule him, which would look bad.

The hard decisions will be made in meetings known as “Byrd baths.” That’s because much of the reconciliation process is dictated by a rule written by Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, which says every amendment passed must be deemed relevant to the budget deficit by the parliamentarian. Amendments kicked out are known as “Byrd droppings.”

Republicans are busy painting Frumin as in the tank for the Democrats, while Democrats insist he’s an honest broker. This unfolds mostly in sports metaphors.

Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma complained last Christmas that Frumin was “calling balls and strikes” in the Democrats’ favor after Frumin wouldn’t let Coburn stall the healthcare bill by reading a 767-page amendment out loud for 12 hours.

Democrats call GOP attacks on Frumin a desperation tactic -- “working the ref,” was how some put it.

(It should be noted that the parliamentarian doesn’t rule, he advises; and he can be ignored by the chair, though that rarely happens. This does not stop the aggrieved party from blaming the parliamentarian, however.)

If parliamentarians pride themselves on anything, it’s fairness. They refuse staff perks, don’t go to parties and refrain from voting in primaries to avoid revealing their political leanings.

“I don’t know what political party Alan belongs to, if he belongs to any,” said Dove, who remains Frumin’s close friend. (Dove did say Frumin is an accomplished horseman. “I’m hoping that’s a nice therapy. Maybe he can take out some of his frustrations by riding.”)

It wasn’t always like this. The post was created in 1937, and Charles Watkins held it until he was about 85, surviving four party changes without once getting fired. Then in the 1970s, Congress expanded the parliamentarian’s duties. In one debate over when to vote on a resolution, Dove was asked to decide whether Marines in Lebanon were in imminent danger. “I thought at the time, ‘This is way above my pay grade,’ ” he recalled. “I decided they were. . . . A lot of members didn’t like that.”

As the job got harder, assistant parliamentarians were added -- three now work with Frumin. They huddle together, make a decision and stick to it. If the chief gets fired, the next in line takes his place, and generally issues an identical decision.

They take to the floor in shifts to stay sharp, like lifeguards at a pool; they work from books and institutional memory. A while back, the electronics-averse Senate let them have a laptop in the chamber. (They packed it with graphite so the beeps wouldn’t bother anyone.)

Washington loves superlatives and tends to believe the flap du jour is the worst in history. In truth, parliamentarians have been in the thick of it before -- the 1964 civil rights legislation with the 57-day filibuster, President Clinton’s impeachment trial (Frumin was there) -- more loyal to the Senate as an institution than the party that happens to run it.

Now, as Democrats scramble for a way to bring the healthcare bill home, they are diving deep into procedural and parliamentary arcana that are Frumin’s to guard.

“It’s hard, but it’s satisfying,” Dove explained. “When we left at the end of the day, we could look each other in the eye knowing that, frankly, we had probably pleased no one in the Senate, making enemies right and left. But there was the satisfaction of having done what we thought was right.

“I’m confident it will be the same for Alan,” he said, but confessed: “I’m really glad I’m not there.”