CLOSE but no cigar.
Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco was just a step way from assuming the House of Representatives’ top post when Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano pulled an ace from his sleeve and thwarted his attempt by offering to resign yesterday, a move which his supporters overwhelmingly rejected.
By turning down Cayetano’s offer, congressmen went against President Duterte’s instruction for Cayetano and Velasco to follow their term-sharing agreement, a decision which the Chief Executive made when he met and spoke with the two legislators and their supporters at Malacañang on Tuesday night.
On the motion of Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Michael Defensor, lawmakers voted 184-1, with nine abstentions, to reject Cayetanos’ offer of resignation which he made as a challenge to Velasco who, according to the Speaker, demanded that he relinquish his post as early as yesterday.
Congressmen initially rejected the Speaker’s resignation offer through voice voting but Defensor later moved that a nominal vote be taken. No one from Velasco’s camp rose to move to declare all positions vacant to allow lawmakers to nominate him for the speakership.
The plenary also later approved Defensor’s motion to suspend deliberations on the P4.5 trillion proposed national budget until Friday morning, supposedly not to “sabotage its passage” in the middle of the speakership row but to give lawmakers time to address the pending issues raised by lawmakers, including the questionable budgetary items of the health sector and the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).
Cayetano said Velasco demanded in front of the President that he (Cayetano) give up his post.
Duterte, according to Cayetano, even asked Velasco several times to allow Cayetano to stay in office until December to allow him to facilitate and ensure the smooth approval of the 2021 budget which is pivotal in the country’s war against the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Before this, Velasco’s camp, through Mindoro Oriental Rep. Salvador Leachon, announced that he was set to take the helm from Cayetano on October 14 based on the outcome of the meeting with the President.
“More than speakership, the budget must be primary concern of members of Congress, especially in 2021 because we’re at a crossroads,” Cayetano said. “The President himself, made the appeal, ‘Why not give Alan a few months as speaker?’ The appeal was rejected (by Velasco) many, many times despite the reasons given.”
In his lengthy privilege speech, Cayetano assailed Velasco’s camp for prematurely announcing to the media that he was set to assume the post on October 14 even if the President was clear that only Cayetano will announce what was agreed upon in the meeting.
The Speaker then made it clear to the President that while he would honor the term-sharing agreement, he needed more time to finish the budget because a sudden change in leadership would put its passage in peril because of the number of issues that Congress has been addressing in light of the COVID pandemic and the other budgetary concerns raised by lawmakers.
He said however that he made it clear that Velasco has to have the majority vote because even if he resigns, he cannot answer for the majority who wants him to stay.
“I told the President, I’ll honor the agreement and will follow whatever he says. I’ve never had a reputation of not following my word,” said Cayetano, adding that Velasco even told the President that Cayetano’s supporters would “revolt” against him if the Speaker is removed.
Cayetano said he told Velasco that the three-month extension he asked for would give him the time to win the “hearts and minds” of his colleagues before he steps in to be their leader because “he does not have the numbers.”
“I told him, ‘Bro., let’s work it out’ but he said, ‘Alan will just continue attacking me and no time will be left for me if the turnover will be in December,’” he said.
He said Velasco even promised the President that Congress will approve the National Expenditure Program (NEP) as is which the Speaker said would turn Congress into a rubberstamp of the Executive.
Cayetano then challenged Velasco to make good on his promise to change the committee chairmen and he did so in front of the President only to tell Duterte a few minutes later that Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab should replace ACT-CIS party-list Rep. Eric Yap as chair of the powerful committee on appropriations.
“If he will change chairmen as the budget goes to the bicameral level (with senators), it will be chaotic. It’s not that simple because we have pending issues on FLR (For Late Release funds),” he said. “It was Velasco who was telling the President that Congress will be a rubberstamp.”
Cayetano said the President looked at Velasco again and asked him to accept the December offer. Cayetano then urged Velasco to allow him to finish his turn until December because for sentimental reasons, too, since he will be celebrating his 50th birthday on October 28 but Velasco did not budge, calling him “shallow.”
The Speaker then made his offer to resign and asked his colleagues that they should be the ones to decide if they want Congress to be turned into a rubberstamp of the Executive by approving the NEP without amendments as planned by Velasco.
In a statement, Leachon accused Cayeteno’s allies of “verbally” attacking Velasco in front of the President.
“It’s true that those on Cayetano’s side launched personal attacks versus Velasco in meeting with President Duterte last night; Velasco was openly insulted,” Leachon said.
Atienza also took a dig at the Speaker and deputy speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte for making it appear that Velasco did not honor the term-sharing agreement when they accused him of plotting a coup against him.
“Lahat ng sinasabi ni Villafuerte ay scripted. Pinagmumukha nilang coup plotter si Velasco.
Bakit siya magpaplano ng kudeta [laban kay Cayetano] eh may term-sharing agreement? (All that Villfuerte said was scripted. They made it appear that Velasco is a coup plotter.
Why does he have to do that when they have a term-sharing agreement?)” said Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza.
Reacting, Villafuerte said the claim is “a total lie” and “no one insulted anyone.”
“I did not insult anyone particularly Cong. Velasco,” he said. “If he heard us say the truth as a matter of fact and our opinion to let Congress decide, anything is an insult to him, we cannot do anything.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte, reacting to the development at the House, said: “Stay out tayo diyan. No comment tayo diyan. (Let’s stay out of that. We will not make a comment on that). That’s a purely internal affair of the House of Representatives.”
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said senators can work with whoever is the House Speaker as long as they share the same perspective.
“We can work with any Speaker as long as we have the same perspective,” Sotto said.
He added that he and his counterpart in the House will continue to coordinate on the priority pieces of legislation through the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC).
Sen.Panfilo.Lacson echoed Sotto’s remarks, saying that no matter who the leader of the House is, it will not affect the working relationship of the two chambers.
“No matter who leads the House, the Senate, or at least like-minded senators who choose to be the vanguards against the legislative abuse of the power of the purse will not be affected,” Lacson said, adding: “We will continue to exercise what is expected of us in exercising our mandate and our obligation to the Filipino people in this regard.”
Sen. Christopher Go said they respect the internal processes of the House in choosing their leaders.
“What is far more important is for the entire Congress to continue deliberating on the legislative agendas and priorities of the Duterte administration, including the 2021 national budget and other priority measures,” Go said. – With Jocelyn Montemayor and Ashzel Hachero