Duterte calls for special session to pass budget

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President Duterte on Friday called Congress to a “special session” to pass the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget on time, a day after he warned that he would step in to solve the leadership dispute in the House of Representatives that was delaying passage of the spending bill.

In Proclamation No. 1027, Duterte set the special session for Oct. 13 to Oct. 16.

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The presidential proclamation was intended “to resume the congressional deliberations on the proposed 2021 national budget and to avoid any further delays on the prompt passage thereof in accordance with the Constitution and applicable laws, rules and regulations.”

The President also wrote separate letters to Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano to certify the urgency of the immediate enactment of the budget law “to strengthen efforts to respond more effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic and support initiatives toward national economic recovery.”

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The Constitution allows the President to call a special session “any time.”

Duterte’s move was mainly directed at the House as the Senate had not suspended its sessions and its hearings on the budget were continuing as scheduled.

On Tuesday this week, Cayetano suspended the House session after the approval of the budget on second reading over the objections of some members.

Sotto said the President’s move “puts emphasis on his call for the House to approve the budget on third reading and give the Senate time to study, review and pass the [national budget].”

The presidential proclamation ended speculation on what Duterte meant when he said he would “solve the problem” in the House, referring to the leadership dispute between Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco.

Under a term-sharing “gentleman’s agreement,” Velasco was supposed to take over as Speaker on Oct. 14 after the budget’s approval on third reading. But Cayetano and his allies have been trying to waylay the deal to keep him as Speaker.

Sounding exasperated and looking grim, the President appeared on national television on Thursday night vowing to resolve the impasse.

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“I am not threatening you,” he said, addressing House members. “I am saying, if you do not solve the problem, then I will solve the problem for you.”

In a Facebook post reacting to the call for a special session, Cayetano on Friday said he trusted the President’s “wisdom on how to address issues concerning the budget.”

He thanked Duterte “for his continued confidence by allowing Congress to pass the General Appropriations Bill free from the specter of politicking and intrigues that we had originally sought to avoid.”

“In the meantime, Congress shall continue to work and prepare for the swift passage of this measure, and to ensure that it will be responsive and relevant to the government’s overall recovery efforts for 2021,” Cayetano said.

Velasco said the President’s “marching orders to Speaker Cayetano is clear: reopen Congress to its members” following the “unceremonious termination” of the budget debates and the “highly questionable” suspension of the House sessions.

‘Safe, secure plenary hall’

Supporting the physical attendance of all House members, he said the House leaders must prepare a “safe and secure plenary hall” so that everyone could participate in the deliberations instead of a “small committee of hand-picked friends” the Speaker had assigned to craft the final version of the budget measure.

Albay Rep. Joey Salceda said the President’s action signaled that he was “taking no chances about the budget timeline.”

“He wants it passed without delay, and rightly so, because we cannot afford to delay the most important economic stimulus measure, the 2021 budget,” he said.

Other lawmakers had either urged Cayetano to reopen sessions or suggested calling a special session, warning of an eventual reenactment of the 2020 budget.

Earlier on Friday, a proposed resolution calling for the resumption of House sessions in order to continue budget deliberations circulated among its members.

It said the abrupt termination of budget debates on House Bill No. 7727, or the proposed General Appropriations Act, violated House rules and that the unilateral suspension of sessions did not conform with the legislative calendar that was set by both the House and the Senate.

Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador Leachon said the Oct. 6 suspension was illegal as it contravened the congressional calendar, and lacked the consent of the Senate as a coequal chamber in the legislative branch.

The resolution said the hasty passage of the 2021 budget on second reading also violated House rules, as it was approved without undergoing the required period of amendments.

Pandemic response provisions

Leachon said some members of the minority bloc, party list representatives, the PDP-Laban and the Nationalist People’s Coalition, as well as some members of the National Unity Party (NUP) have signed the resolution.

Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga, Jr., the NUP president, also supported calls for the resumption of sessions, noting that there were no provisions in the 2020 budget to respond to the pandemic, such as the purchase of personal protective equipment and the construction of health facilities.

Opposition Rep. Edcel Lagman, who had also proposed a special session, said the President’s move was a “rebuke” of Cayetano.

He earlier urged the President to “unequivocably enforce” the term-sharing agreement that Duterte himself had brokered last year and reiterated last month, adding that the deal “must be respected and honored.”

“The President must avoid any ambivalent language or mystical message which could be subject to differing interpretations,” Lagman said.

“The tradition, albeit flawed, is that the Speaker is chosen in Malacañang, and the anointment is simply confirmed by the President’s allies in the House of Representatives in an uncontested nominal voting,” he said.

Commenting on the President’s statement on Thursday that he would “solve” the House problem, Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he did not see any “impropriety if he steps in.”

‘Direct hand’

“After all, anything that has to do with the advancement of the national interest should involve the President,” he said.

“He obviously sent a clear message to exercise his option to do whatever is necessary, even taking a ‘direct’ hand in resolving the speakership issue,” Lacson added.

Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate finance committee, said the President’s statement on Thursday would “encourage” House members to approve on third and final reading the National Expenditure Program at the soonest possible time.

“[This will] enable the Senate to begin its plenary debates as well in compliance with the Constitution,” Angara said in a Viber message. —WITH A REPORT FROM MARLON RAMOS

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