01 Mar 2010

One Man May Kill Health Care Reconciliation

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Parliamentarian of the Senate, Alan Frumin

The Wall Street Journal explains that it is far from a foregone conclusion that the attempt to ram the health care bill through via Reconciliation will be possible.

That arcane maneuver will have to survive the scrutiny of a theoretically independent official charged with enforcing the rules of the Senate, the Senate parliamentarian.

The drama over health-care legislation is reaching a critical stage, and soon the spotlight may land on Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin.

Mr. Frumin is usually offstage, standing on the chamber dais whispering with the presiding officer about obscure points of Senate procedure. To lawmakers rushing to finish their long-stalled health bill, however, the $170,000-a-year Senate appointee suddenly has attained outsize prominence and power.

That is because Democratic senators, who unexpectedly lost their filibuster-proof majority in January, are relying on arcane congressional budget rules to complete the health-care revamp.

Those budget rules promise a huge procedural advantage by avoiding filibusters that require 60 votes to overcome.

But there is a big catch: Anything that is in a budget bill has to have a budget purpose. If not, the provision can be challenged under the “Byrd rule,” named for Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat.

And Mr. Frumin, as the parliamentarian, must decide whether the Byrd rule has been met.

Thus, in a series of tense private meetings known informally as “Byrd baths,” it is Mr. Frumin who will determine what stays in the legislation and what goes, according to people who have taken part in the past. (Provisions that are cut become “Byrd droppings.”) Mr. Frumin’s decisions could dictate whether the health-care overhaul will gain momentum or collapse.

Byrd-bath meetings, which are held in the parliamentarian’s cubbyhole office in the Capitol, can drag on for hours as lawmakers and staffers make their cases. Running debates can stretch over weeks.

“The whole [Byrd rule] process in my experience as parliamentarian is a rather wrenching one,” said Robert Dove, Mr. Frumin’s predecessor. “It’s just long and grueling.…I don’t envy him.”

The parliamentarian and his staff “are under huge pressure,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican. “There are 100 elected senators and one parliamentarian, and the parliamentarian can determine what the 100 can do.”

Among the policies that could be bounced by the Byrd rule are a number of changes to how the insurance market operates. Mr. Dove expressed skepticism that the budget shortcuts were well-suited for such efforts.

“When [the budget process] is used to jam things through on a very narrow basis, that’s when it runs into problems,” he said. Still, “it’s so handy for any party that doesn’t have 60 votes.…so it’s a very tempting tool.”

Mr. Frumin, 63 years old, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

That health care bill sure looks like Byrd droppings to me.

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