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Who's Alan Frumin and why might he shape US health reform?

Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin becomes the top power broker on health reform if Democrats' 60-vote strategy fails.

Alan S. Frumin, Parliamentarian of the United States Senate.

Courtesy of Congressional Pictorial Directory, Government Printing Office

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With Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine casting the first Republican vote for healthcare reform this week, Senate Democrats are upbeat that the goal of 60 votes to prevent a filibuster and get to a floor vote is within reach. But if the 60-vote strategy fails, Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin suddenly becomes Washington’s top power broker.

Few people in Washington could pick him out of a lineup. (He’s the one whispering to the presiding officer.) But his rulings on Senate procedure can shape legislation more decisively than any lawmaker.

Master of Senate rules and precedent, the parliamentarian is also known for absolute discretion – and an aversion to publicity. Mr. Frumin, for one, rarely gives interviews and declined, through his office, requests to do so for this story. Nor would his office, tucked into a closed-to-the-public corridor in the US Capitol, release his biographical information.

“He’s a man who plays his cards very close to his vest, because he has to. Everyone is looking over his shoulder,” says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. “He’s very serious about what he does, and he’s scrupulously neutral.”

Here’s why he’s about to be in the spotlight: Once healthcare reform moves to the Senate floor, procedural challenges – which could gut the legislation – will be the first line of partisan combat. This will be especially true if Democrats move the bill to the floor on a fast track called reconciliation.

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