Special session eyed to address budget impasse

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MANILA, Philippines — The Senate is eyeing a special session to break the impasse over the P3.757-trillion 2019 national budget, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said yesterday.

But he said a special session could be held only after the House leadership agrees to restore the ratified bicameral conference report and just let President Duterte use his veto power over lump-sum appropriations.

“The suggestion was that again recall the submitted GAB (General Appropriations Bill) to us and from there, we could probably amend or let the President veto that portion,” Sotto said in a TV interview.

“Then we can convene even for one day for a special session and pass a joint resolution approving a supplemental budget for that particular percent or three percent portion of the budget,” he added.

The government is operating under a reenacted budget after Congress failed to transmit to the Office of the President the final copy of the ratified bicameral report on the 2019 appropriations program.

Sotto clarified that portions of the budget vetoed by Duterte would remain in the appropriations program.

“Whatever is vetoed by the President will remain there and therefore we can convene into a special session and address that particular portion of the budget,” he said.

He noted that Congress may also pass a supplemental budget for 2019. “As soon as the President signs it or vetoes any portion of the budget, they can do that – and then they’re still in office until June 30. I think they have to accept our suggestion because after June 30, we’ll be dealing with different people,” Sotto pointed out.

Earlier, Sotto claimed the House made P96-billion realignments after the ratification of the 2019 national budget, in violation of the Constitution.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said some congressmen sought his assistance as some House members had realigned close to P95 billion to districts of Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s allies in the House even after the ratification of the final version of the budget bill.

On Tuesday, Sotto said the President opened his meeting with members of Senate and House with a declaration: “I will not sign anything unless Senate President Sotto signs it.”

He said Duterte was apparently telling the House of Representatives to put things in order.

“In my case, I will not sign if I will be complicit to the violation of the revised penal code and the violation of the Constitution. To us, it’s as simple as that,” he said.

The Senate chief said senators had thought House members had agreed to the Senate position.

He said they were surprised to hear key House members the following day singing a different tune.

“Well, it’s their own lookout, as far as we are concerned, we are expecting them to recall what they sent,” Sotto added.

Who’s Senate chief?

Amid the deadlock over the budget, House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro said Sotto appeared to be acting second fiddle to Lacson. “He has obviously convinced the Senate leadership to do his bidding,” Castro said, referring to Lacson.

“It seems that Senator Lacson is holding President Duterte and the entire Filipino people hostage to his continuing animosity towards our Speaker,” the Capiz congressman said.

“It seems with their maneuverings they want the President to fail,” Castro said in a statement.

“We were elected by our people to pass laws for their benefit, not to indulge in personal vendettas, and least of all to place those vendettas ahead of the job we were elected to do. Let’s heed the President’s call for all of us to do our job and do right by our people,” he said.

House Deputy Speaker Prospero Pichay also joined the fray in defending Arroyo, saying Lacson is “so desperate” that he now wants her haled to court for allegedly falsifying documents, only out of his “deep-rooted anger toward Speaker GMA.”

Deputy Minority Leader Anthony Bravo derisively called Sotto a comedian and Lacson a police general.

Sotto is a former mainstay in a popular television show, while Lacson is former Philippine National Police chief.

“Now if the comedian and the police general really want to lock horns with lawyers and accountants with regard to the constitutionality and legality of the 2019 GAA, be my guest. The people will eventually know who is real and who is fake,” Bravo said.

House appropriations committee chairman Rolando Andaya Jr. said sending the spending bill to the President as approved on Feb. 8 would mean retaining billions in pork barrel allocations of ousted speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and other previous House leaders.

For Malacañang, lawmakers should just file cases before the courts if they think the supposed last minute changes to this year’s budget violated the Constitution.

“File appropriate charges against whomsoever has committed any violation of any law,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.

“If there is something wrong with the procedures, why don’t they go to the courts to get to the bottom of it,” he said at a press briefing.

Officials have warned that a reenacted budget until April would bring down full year economic growth to 6.1 from 6.3 percent. The National Economic and Development Authority has said the economy would only grow by about 4.9 to 5.1 percent if the budget is passed in August. Growth could go as low as 4.2 to 4.9 percent if no new budget is passed this year, NEDA added.

Panelo said a reenacted budget could hurt the chances of lawmakers seeking reelection.

“I think the citizens of this country, especially the voters because election is just forthcoming, I think they will not take lightly if there will be no new budget, because it will affect many projects of the government,” the spokesman said.

“I’m sure if people suffer, everything will be affected,” he added.   – With Delon Porcalla, Jess Diaz, Alexis Romero