Parliamentarian Takes Quiet Role in Senate Tiff

Posted May 11, 2005 at 6:56pm

Alan Frumin is not a household name in the nation’s capital. But with a bitter fight over President Bush’s judicial nominations about to reach its climax, Frumin could be thrust into one of the biggest Congressional fights in years.

As Senate Parliamentarian, Frumin is charged with helping interpret and apply Senate rules and precedents. It’s one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes positions in the chamber, and a complicated task made even more difficult by the competing interests of influential politicians.

Over the past month, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has claimed on several occasions that Frumin has told him he does not support the GOP’s position on doing away with the filibuster for judicial nominees.

“I have spoken to the Senate Parliamentarian — he’s bipartisan — and he said that if they do this, they will have to overrule him, because what they’re doing is wrong,” Reid said at an April 12 news conference.

If Republicans move forward with their plan to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees, Vice President Cheney is expected to play a pivotal role. Once Democrats began filibustering a contested nominee, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) would call for a point of order and Cheney, in his capacity as Senate President, would uphold it. At this point, the filibuster would be abolished for judicial nominees, which would be solidified after a few more procedural votes were taken.

Even though Reid has claimed that Frumin does not approve of this procedure, he may never get a chance to be overruled if Republicans decide to move forward with it. Cheney is likely to make a ruling without Frumin’s counsel, an action he hinted at during an April 22 speech to a group of Republican lawyers. Cheney told the lawyers he would vote to change the rule requiring judges to need only 51 votes for Senate approval.

A Cheney spokeswoman would not offer comment beyond saying that the vice president had already made his intentions known.

Ignoring the Parliamentarian’s advice is a rare occurrence, and Democrats are expected to use it to promote their claim that Republicans are running roughshod over the rules in the quest for absolute power.

“It will be the poster child for the way they have broken the rules and disregarded the traditions of the Senate throughout this whole process,” said a senior Democratic staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “I think it would be a clarifying moment that would expose their move for what it is, a naked power play.”

But Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is pursuing a compromise but has advocated for Frist to trigger the nuclear option once a deal cannot be reached, said the Parliamentarian is not the final judge about what happens in the chamber.

“The Parliamentarian doesn’t have the Holy Grail of rulings,” Lott said. “There is no question in my mind, and there are plenty of precedents to back it up.”

Frist’s office declined comment for this article.

In an interview, Reid acknowledged that Democrats would be procedurally powerless if Cheney disregarded the Parliamentarian’s advice.

“He has no authority if somebody doesn’t want to follow what he tells them,” Reid said. “Every day he gives us advice. This is how the place is run.”

Not since then-Majority Leader Lott fired Robert Dove in 2001 has the Parliamentarian been drawn into such a highly publicized political fight. And the nuclear option, if it materializes, is likely to put Frumin, a career Senate staffer, in an awkward position of appearing to favor one political party over another.

“For someone who normally operates anonymously, he could be the flash point for the most intense political event in the Senate this year,” said another Democratic staffer, who asked not to be named.

Frumin graduated from New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School in 1964, from Colgate University in 1968 and from Georgetown University’s law school in 1971. He did not respond to telephone messages seeking comment.

Frumin is an unlikely pawn in a high-stakes political fight. Senators and aides who work with him describe him as a “very detailed” but not gregarious in the workplace.

“If you ask him for the time of day, he tells you how to build a watch,” said a former Senate Democratic leadership aide who worked closely with Frumin.

“I think he has been pretty good,” said Lott, who promoted Frumin after firing Dove in 2001. But Lott added, “He may be fixing to mess his record up.”

Before hiring Frumin as the Parliamentarian in 2001, Lott said he gave him very specific instructions not to favor one political party over the other.

“I talked to Frumin and I said, ‘I don’t want you to give rulings that I dictate, but I do want you to be very careful never to appear to be partisan or siding one way or another,’” Lott said. “And be careful about meeting with Democrats and giving them information voluntarily.”

Democrats and Republicans alike, said Frumin has adhered studiously to the principle of making nonpartisan rulings.

This is Frumin’s second tour of duty as Parliamentarian. He joined the office in 1977 as Assistant Parliamentarian and was appointed by then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to be parliamentarian in 1987 to succeed Dove.

When Republicans took control of the chamber in 1995, Dove was appointed Parliamentarian by then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Frumin again assumed the role as Assistant Parliamentarian.

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said that if Republicans follow through on the threat to eliminate the filibuster against the Parliamentarian’s advice, he would advise his former colleagues to seize the issue.

“I would think it needs to be pointed out for the record that the Parliamentarian was overruled,” Daschle said. “I think it is important the Democratic leadership makes sure the record shows the Parliamentarian has advised in opposition.”