With budget season fast approaching, the stakes are high for Senate Parliamentarian Alan Frumin as he contemplates the potentially precedent-setting decisions that could make the difference between success and failure for a number of top GOP policy priorities.
But Frumin also must be mindful of another recent precedent: His job could depend on what he ultimately decides. Indeed, the last Parliamentarian to run afoul of the Senate GOP majority’s plans for the budget was fired.
In a sign of how Frumin is caught in the middle of the sparring over President Bush’s tax cut and other domestic matters, aides to both Republicans and Democrats said they are already lobbying the Parliamentarian to side with them on complicated budget reconciliation rules.
Although Republicans are still arguing over some of the finer points of the fiscal 2004 budget resolution, which is expected to hit the Senate floor later this month, they are already trying to determine whether Frumin might allow them to bring up multiple reconciliation measures this year, according to several GOP leadership aides.
By using the budget process known as reconciliation, the GOP would need only 51 votes — instead of 60 — for passage. Republicans could protect their most contentious proposals, such as Bush’s newest tax-cut proposal as well as proposals to open up Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy exploration, from Democratic filibusters.
But Democrats are just as doggedly trying to convince Frumin that that effort would violate Senate rules. “We’re already talking to him,” said one Democratic Senator.
Frumin did not respond to a half-dozen requests for comment.
Republicans say they will test various legislative language in an attempt to get around rules that prevent them from offering more than one reconciliation bill that deals with tax cuts.
“It’s all about how you write it,” said one senior GOP leadership aide.
Budget rules allow Congress to pass multiple reconciliation bills only if they deal with separate topics, which are limited to taxes, mandatory spending on entitlement programs and the debt limit, according to several budget experts.
Republicans may try to get around those rules by writing one reconciliation package that deals with revenues and outlays, and another that deals with deficits or surpluses. By tinkering with the language, Republicans could push through two different tax cuts, according to a Democratic budget policy expert.
Still, the expert cautioned that the Senate Parliamentarian’s office has historically been reluctant to allow such a “perversion of the rules.”
“I think [Frumin] would be skeptical of those tactics,” the Democratic expert said.
Still, Frumin must be keenly aware that his predecessor, Bob Dove, lost his job in part because he would not allow Republicans to offer more than one tax-centered reconciliation bill in 2001.
In an interview this week, Dove acknowledged that his successor is in a difficult position.
“A lot of these decisions are judgement calls,” Dove said. “You’re giving advice that is pleasing to some and displeasing to others.”
Dove also noted that lawmakers and staffers often lobby the Parliamentarian on a variety of issues, hoping to use the rules to their advantage.
“That goes on constantly,” said Dove. “You could have anywhere between one and 15 to 20 people show up at the office, and they usually have materials with them for you to review.”
Republicans said Frumin’s job could be easier if Democrats would simply cooperate with the GOP’s legislative agenda and allow a simple majority, rather than a filibuster-proof 60-vote margin, to pass legislation.
“If [Democrats] continue to say that we’ve got to get 60 votes or you’re not going to pass anything, then that’s going to drive more things into reconciliation,” new Senate Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said in an interview.
Democrats say they are not creating an arbitrary 60-vote threshold, but simply want Republicans to allow the minority’s proposals a fair shake on the floor and in committee.
Nickles said he would prefer to pass just one reconciliation bill that shelters Bush’s nearly $700 billion tax cut this year, while letting issues such as Medicare prescription drugs and ANWR be battled out on the floor.
“I’m keeping the other options open if necessary,” Nickles warned. “No final decision has been made on reconciliation. No final decision has been made on what’s in them or out of them — or how many of them.”
One Republican budget expert said the Senate GOP couldn’t put all its priorities into one reconciliation package. Some issues, such as Medicare reform, will not be resolved by the time Republicans are ready to pass the president’s tax cut in mid-April.
“It’s really a question of timing,” the expert said.
Republicans say they would be perfectly within Senate rules if they sheltered the Medicare prescription drug proposal under a separate reconciliation measure, because it would fall under mandatory spending on entitlements, not taxes. Still, Republicans are reluctant to put prescription drugs in a reconciliation measure because floor rules that restrict the amount of legislative language in such bills could imperil the proposal.
“We don’t want to use reconciliation for the expansion of a major entitlement program. That’s not a precedent we would embrace,” the Republican budget expert said.
However, proposals like ANWR and other potential tax incentives or credits would be problematic if included in reconciliation measure separate from the president’s tax cut.