After nearly 20 years, Senate parliamentarian Alan Frumin to retire

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday morning announced the selection of a new Senate parliamentarian who will likely play a pivotal role in deciding how difficult it will be to repeal President Obama's 2010 healthcare reform law.

The current parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, is retiring after serving nearly 20 years in the obscure yet crucially important position.

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Reid said Tuesday he would tap Elizabeth MacDonough, who has worked in the parliamentarian's office for nearly a decade, to replace Frumin. She will be the sixth parliamentarian and the first woman in the job.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) could decide to replace the parliamentarian if Republicans win control of the upper chamber, a choice made by then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1995.

MacDonough will come under the spotlight next year if Republicans win control of the Senate and attempt to use special budgetary rules known as reconciliation to repeal the 2010 healthcare reform bill.

The new parliamentarian will also have the tough job of refereeing efforts by the majority party to change rules through rulings of the chair.

Reid surprised colleagues last year when he asked for a ruling to prevent Republicans from forcing votes on uncomfortable amendments after the Senate has voted to move to final passage of a bill.

But perhaps the biggest job of the parliamentarian is to decide what can and cannot be done under the reconciliation process, which allows the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority instead of the usual 60 votes.

Frumin delivered a crucial ruling in 2010 that allowed Senate Democrats to reconcile healthcare legislation with a House-passed version despite having fewer than 60 votes. The procedural maneuver allowed the Democratic-controlled Congress to pass landmark legislation that was on the brink of failure.

Frumin became parliamentarian in 2001 after former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) grew frustrated with the rulings of Robert Dove on tax and spending issues.

Frumin was first appointed parliamentarian in 1987 by then-Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) after Democrats captured control of the Senate. Dole fired Frumin in 1995 and replaced him with Dove.

Dove fell out of the good graces of the Senate GOP leadership six years later when he ruled that only one tax bill could be considered under reconciliation protection and derailed a Republican plan to set aside emergency spending.

Reid recalled Frumin’s historic role in the passage of the 2010 healthcare reform bill.

“Alan Frumin was one of the most talked-about men in the entire city of Washington,” Reid said. “The Senate was poised to send an historic healthcare bill to President Obama’s desk for him to sign. But the usual procedural hurdles stood in the way. Healthcare policy staffers were camped out in Alan Frumin’s office studying Senate procedure and precedent.

“Despite the pressure, despite the national spotlight, Mr. Frumin remained calm and professional through what must have been one of the most tense moments of his career,” Reid added.

McConnell thanked Frumin for his service, which he compared to acting as the umpire of the Senate.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that we haven’t always agreed on those calls, but it’s not an easy job to be an umpire for 100 senators,” McConnell said.

“He never has hesitated to admit when he got something wrong,” he continued. “Alan has a deep love for the Senate and the people who make it work.

“We’re glad he’ll be able to spend more time with his wife, Jill, and his daughter,” he added. 

—This story was updated at 12:18 p.m.