Parliamentarian, or 'umpire,' is only one both parties trust

WASHINGTON — Alan Frumin is barely known and rarely heard, but he could make or break the Senate Democrats' effort this week to put the final touches on President Barack Obama's health insurance overhaul.

Frumin is the Senate parliamentarian, and his advice is crucial to Democrats' success as they battle Republican bids to derail the bill that's designed to add important fixes to the health care overhaul Obama signed into law Tuesday.

"I compare him to the umpire at a baseball game," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie. "Everyone is rooting for one team or another, but he's going to call 'em as he sees 'em. His job is the honest broker."

Like an umpire, Frumin's guidance infuriates the losers, heartens the winners and could decide the game. Rarely, however, do players publicly protest.

"You really establish relationships of trust with members of both parties, and people tend to give you the benefit of the doubt," said Kevin Kayes, a Washington lobbyist who served as assistant parliamentarian from 1987 to 2000.

The Senate on Wednesday continued considering the last piece of the Democrats' health care initiative, a "reconciliation" bill that would change parts of the new health law.

The House passed the fixes package late Sunday, and the Senate is hoping to concur as soon as today. Victory is virtually assured, unless Republicans succeed in winning an amendment. Then the House must approve it, too.

Or, should Frumin advise that a part of the bill could be inappropriate under the rules governing the special "reconciliation" process, the presiding officer of the Senate would have to rule on how to proceed.

If he or she agreed with Frumin, Democrats could try to overturn the ruling but would need 60 votes, which probably would be unattainable. If the presiding officer disagreed with Frumin, he or she would be doing something rare in the Senate — defying the referee.

Frumin, 63, a New York native and Georgetown Law School graduate, or one of his assistants have been at the parliamentarian's desk in front of the Senate chamber this week. They consult with Senate staff on procedural questions, although many big decisions already have been made. Both parties argue their cases separately.