For Senate rules arbiter, minimum wage is latest minefield

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In this Jan. 6, 2021, photo, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, second from left, works beside Vice President Mike Pence during the certification of Electoral College ballots in the presidential election, in the House chamber at the Capitol in Washington. Shortly afterward, the Capitol was stormed by rioters determined to disrupt the certification. MacDonough has guided the Senate through two impeachment trials, vexed Democrats and Republicans alike with parliamentary opinions and helped rescue Electoral College certificates from a pro-Trump mob ransacking the Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – She's guided the Senate through two impeachment trials, vexed Democrats and Republicans alike with parliamentary opinions and helped rescue Electoral College certificates from a pro-Trump mob ransacking the Capitol. She also does spot-on impersonations of senators including Bernie Sanders.

Elizabeth MacDonough, an English literature major and the Senate's first woman parliamentarian, is about to demonstrate anew why she's one of Washington's most potent, respected yet obscure figures. Any day, she's expected to reveal if she thinks a federal minimum wage boost, progressives' most prized plank in Democrats' $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, should fall from the bill.

Her decision, a political minefield likely to elicit groans from whichever side she disappoints, will play an outsize role in deciding the wage increase's fate. It may not be definitive — majority Democrats might try overriding an opinion they don't like.

“Elizabeth has a soul-crushing job, to which she brings an enormous amount of soul," said her predecessor, Alan Frumin, whom she replaced when he retired in 2012.

The House plans to vote Friday on its version of the relief bill, which includes the minimum wage increase.

Part of MacDonough's job, in which she's supposed to be nonpartisan, is enduring high-stakes lobbying from both parties when she's making pivotal decisions. But she’s found a home in the Capitol, where she’s spent most of the past three decades after starting as an assistant Senate librarian in 1990. “She knows the names of every police officer and janitor,” Frumin said.

Sometimes, the pressure can be extraordinary. Frumin said that when the Senate was enacting former President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law — which was opposed by Republicans and infuriated grassroots tea party conservatives — he had police protection at his home as a precaution. “And the political climate hasn’t gotten friendlier," he said.

Even so, MacDonough, 55, has garnered high marks from both parties. Underscoring that, while she was initially appointed in 2012 by Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, Senate majority leader at the time, she was retained by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., when he became majority leader in 2015.