Most people think all the Vice President does is break ties, but a former Senate parliamentarian has just delineated a job that could be FAR more controversial and important: the Vice President can override the Senate's nonpartisan arbiter of the chamber's rules, the parliamentarian.
Talk about the real nuclear, heck - kamikaze, option, the specter of Vice President Joe Biden (former long time senator) overruling the current parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, during the upcoming healthcare debate, as Democrats work to get around a GOP filibuster.
"It is the decision of the Vice President whether or not to play a role here," former Senate parliamentarian Robert "Bob" Dove told MSNBC. Dove said the parliamentarian is merely dispensing advice, and the Vice President can overrule that advice, even though "not since Hubert Humphrey" has this happened.
But remember --- Humphrey, like Biden, was a long time member of the Senate, serving 3 1/2 terms. Humphrey was the Senate's Majority Whip. Biden served for 36 years. Dove said at the time, Humphrey "felt very comfortable playing an important role." One can easily imagine Biden might feel comfortable, too. But it's hard to say,. Members who serve for decades often feel a need to guard the ways and rules of the chamber.
There's no reason to believe Dems will use this controversial power -- but certainly, if they are going to go it alone and use the budgetary procedure known as "reconciliation", which allows passage with just 50 votes (Biden breaking the tie) of certain bills that meet a strict test of relation to the budget, they really are able to go all the way and liberal groups might demand this. After all, they have had to sacrifice the so-called "public option" - or government run/monitored insurance.
Senior Senate aides appear to be unaware of this power invested in the Vice President, so no one, as yet, has been able to articulate what it means -- what they're likely to do. So - we wait.
One senior Senate Dem leadership aide pointed to the President's speech this Wednesday, saying that's the next expected development. President Obama is expected to clearly outline the way forward on healthcare. (Senate & House Dems don't exactly trust each other these days -- and they need the President to play intermediary).
AND -- a few things to remember about reconciliation, when it seems as if it will be a cake walk (although, it's now unclear what the VP power means to this list):
=Any reconciliation bill must deal predominantly with the budget, or the Minority can tie up the chamber with amendments (as many as they can write)
=Any reconciliation bill must be in balance --- ie, create NO deficits -- in 5 years and create no red ink in any year thereafter.