WASHINGTON — In a Senate split 50-50 between the political parties, the outcome of some debates can hinge on decisions made by a person who is not elected by anyone and is barely known outside the chamber: the Senate parliamentarian.
And the importance of the post became apparent Monday with word that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had decided to oust parliamentarian Robert B. Dove from the job he has held during two periods of Republican control of the Senate.
Although Dove was hired by the GOP, aides from both parties say he has angered Lott with some rulings this year that the Republican leader felt gave too much influence to Democrats. Among them were rulings on points of order and procedure connected to the tax and budget debate at the heart of President Bush's administration.
Dove's ouster was first reported in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Dove, 62, has held the position since the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress in 1995. He also held it during a period of GOP Senate control in the 1980s. Dove was at work Monday but did not stop to answer questions about his job status as he exited the Capitol.
Lott's office declined to comment. Dove's supervisor, the secretary of the Senate, who serves under the majority leader, also would not elaborate.
"This is an internal matter regarding an official of the Senate under my supervision, and I have no further comment," Secretary Gary Sisco said in a statement.
Typically an anonymous figure, the parliamentarian sits just beneath the Senate's presiding officer. There, Dove or one of his deputies whisper procedures to the officer holding the gavel--usually a senator, sometimes the vice president. Often, the officer repeats those instructions verbatim.
Such instructions can be pivotal in the Senate, where a dense set of rules and precedents gives great power to individual senators and minority blocs. So majority leaders, seeking to stave off legislative attacks, count on parliamentarians to grant their party as many breaks as possible when procedural questions arise.
A majority of the Senate can vote to overrule the parliamentarian. But Dove's advice and rulings have been given great weight.
This year, Senate aides say, one of Dove's most important rulings came on a question about the number of tax bills eligible for passage on a simple majority vote. On most legislation, Senate rules require 60 votes to cut off floor debate--effectively requiring a super-majority for passage. That margin gives the Democrats, who hold 50 seats, great power.
But on some legislation connected to the annual federal budget, known as "reconciliation" bills, the 60-vote threshold isn't required. The Bush administration and GOP-led Congress have viewed such bills as key vehicles to accomplish their agenda. Dove, however, ruled this year there could be only one reconciliation bill, to the annoyance of Republicans.
In addition, Roll Call reported that the GOP was upset at a ruling Dove made that would require 60 votes to pass a budget proposal dealing with billions of dollars in emergency spending.
Dove, according to one Senate Republican aide, was told of his dismissal last week as he was meeting with GOP senators.
"In the middle of a conversation at some point on the budget, he was interrupted by a phone call," the aide said. Afterward, as senators resumed their questioning, Dove told the surprised group, according to this account: "I don't think I can help you anymore."