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Road Map: Parliamentarian Takes the Stage

Frumin Will Referee Debate

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You probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup of two, and for years, he has toiled in obscurity. But this week’s Senate debate over a health care reconciliation bill is likely to come down to one mustachioed man — Parliamentarian Alan Frumin.

He is the go-to guy for rulings on whether the bill and any provision in it can pass with just a simple 51-vote majority or will need a 60-vote supermajority for success, and no one in either party, it seems, wants to upset him.

If Frumin says any part of the bill violates strict reconciliation rules, it will likely be stricken, because Senate Democrats do not have the 60 votes needed to retain it.

And if that happens, Senate Democrats will be forced to go hat in hand to House leaders with a plea for them to reprise their contentious and highly political Sunday night vote on the measure — a scenario that is sure to ignite further controversy and enhance the mistrust that exists between House and Senate Democrats.

Because reconciliation cannot be filibustered, the Senate GOP strategy has all along been to find at least one weakness in the bill that would force changes and a revote in the House. And Senate Republicans have repeatedly warned House Democrats that the likelihood of that happening is high.

Despite their protestations to the contrary last week, Senate Democrats finally acknowledged as much once the House had done its part. House Democrats narrowly approved the Senate version of health care reform legislation and the companion reconciliation bill late Sunday. President Barack Obama plans to sign the Senate piece of the package today.

The Senate battle for Frumin’s approval has been going on for weeks as House and Senate Democrats wrote the reconciliation measure, but Frumin refused to make some decisions until he had heard the Republican side of the argument. That process began in earnest this week.

While ominous thunder rumbled outside, Republican and Democratic staffers met with Frumin and his staff at high noon Monday in an ornate Senate room and argued their positions for an hour. The topic was whether changes to a new tax on high-cost “Cadillac” insurance plans met the strict rules governing reconciliation. At press time, it was unclear whether Frumin had made a definitive ruling on whether the provisions violated rules that bar reconciliation from altering Social Security.

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