2021 national budget collateral damage in ‘war’

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    THE proposed P4.5 trillion national budget for 2021 was worst hit in the raging speakership row in the House of Representatives, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said yesterday as he chided the camp of Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco for going against President Duterte’s wishes for lawmakers to set aside politics and work together for the speedy passage of the measure.

    The Malacañang drafted 2021 National Expenditure Program (NEP) was expected to be approved on third and final reading ay day during this week’s special session, which the President called for over the weekend to force House members to reconvene the session and resume floor deliberations on the measure.

    The House had suspended its session last October 6 and was set to resume on November 16 if the special session was not called by Duterte. The more than a month-long break would effectively setback Congress’ timeline on the approval of the proposed 2021 national budget, which lawmakers had previously wanted to send to the Palace before their Christmas break.

    Yesterday, the camp of Velasco convened a session at the Quezon City Celebrity Sports Plaza and “elected” Velasco as the new speaker, making the political atmosphere at the House more tense and complicated, and the chances of the appropriations bill getting approved on time slimmer.

    Cayetano said would have no objection if the speakership fight will be put to a vote for as long as the budget will be approved first since the nation’s future is hanging in the balance in the face of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

    “If that’s what Malacañang wants (election of speaker), but we can’t stop work on a mere speculation (that Velasco has the numbers),” Cayetano said. “If they don’t want to listen to the President (and put politics ahead of the budget, then it’s up to them).”

    The Speaker reminded Velasco of the President’s request to allow him to finish the budget until December before claiming the post. He said he would continue to work for its passage “until the last minute that we’re removed here, if we will really be removed.”

    Cayetano said he and his allies are ready to work with Velasco allies to pass the budget “if there are still some of them who are not yet intoxicated by power.”

    Since the House version of the budget has to be sent to the Senate by November 5 and approved by both houses before Christmas Day, Cayetano yesterday convened the small panel tasked to review committee and individual amendments and started working on the submissions of congressmen.

    The panel is led by majority leader Martin Romualdez and ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the committee on appropriations.

    “It (formation of a small committee) has been the tradition for 28 years,” Cayetano said, saying Congress cannot allow all 300 members to speak on the floor and introduce amendments because the budget will never be finished on time.

    Kabataan party-list Rep. Sarah Elago reiterated the Makabayan bloc’s demand for the urgent resumption of the budget deliberations, saying the deliberations on the proposed budgets of 14 departments are yet to start.

    “Our position remains that the national budget must not be a collateral damage in the speakership row,” she said.

    Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, chairman of the Senate finance committee, said the Senate would not meddle in the leadership problem at the House of Representatives but appealed to his fellow lawmakers to put a premium to the passage of the proposed national budget on time.

    “The decision on the leadership of the House is an internal matter. So walang say ang

    Senado diyan. Pero ganun pa din ang request naming, na sana maipasa ng third and final reading ang panukalang budget bago mag recess ang Kongreso. Handa din ang mga senador na mag special session kung kinakailangan para sa agarang pag aprub sa budget (The decision on the leadership of the House is an internal matter. So, the Senate will not meddle on their problem. What we are requesting is for them to pass the budget bill on third and final reading before Congress takes a break [on Oct. 16]. We are ready to hold a special session, if needed, so that the budget measure can be passed on time),” Angara said.

    Administration ally Sen. Christopher Go called on their House counterparts to “set aside politics, partisan differences, and personal ambitions in favor of national interests and welfare of our people” so that the 2021 proposed national budget can be passed on time.

    In a statement, Go said having a delayed or reenacted budget due to the House leadership squabble will not do the country any good since the national budget will fund new projects in the fight against COVID-19, and help boost the economy which will alleviate the lives of the people.

    “Nakasalalay dito ang buhay ng bawat Pilipino. Huwag ninyong subukan ang Pangulo.

    Huwag ninyong antayin pa na he will solve this problem for you. (The life of every Filipino is dependent on the [new] national budget. Don’t challenge the President. Don’t wait for the President to solve this problem for you,” Go said.

    “Let us work together and pass the 2021 national budget on time,” he added.

    Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the continued bickering over the speakership issue in the House has further delayed the approval of the 2021 budget.

    “Any talk of speakership will delay the passage of the 2021 budget,” he said, reiterating that the Duterte does not want to be dragged into the internal affairs of the House and his priority is the passage of COVID-19 budget for next year.

    He added President Duterte expects the House to finish the budget deliberations within the week during the four-day special session that he has called.

    “Many people are looking forward to the vaccine, Many people are looking forward to the additional hospital beds, isolation facilities and possible medicine for COVID-19 which is in danger because of the desire of a few in the Lower House to gain power. It’s up to you after the passage of the budget but for now, set aside that dream, set aside that ambition and serve the people,” Roque said. – With Raymond Africa and Jocelyn Montemayor