BY RAYMOND AFRICA and WENDELL VIGILIA
Senate President Vicente Sotto III yesterday declared a ceasefire in the brewing word war between him and Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano over the possible delay in the approval of the proposed P4.5 trillion national budget for 2021 following the power intramurals in the House of Representatives.
Sotto said he has accepted the apology extended by Cayetano for his statement that the Senate should be blamed if the budget approval is delayed and the government runs on a reenacted national budget next year.
Sotto said Cayetano called him up Thursday to explain that his statement about the budget issue was taken out of context.
“Ceasefire na… (Apology) accepted. And I said, we will do our best to work on the time that we have as the Senate always does… Yes he (Cayetano) called. He promised to submit by Nov. 5 their proposed copies of the different budget books, therefore the GAB (General Appropriations Bill), which they will approve on third reading. I said that will help us, especially our finance chairman,” Sotto said.
Cayetano, in a live video posted on his Facebook account, confirmed that he apologized to Sotto for saying that it will be the Senate’s fault if this year’s budget will be re-enacted.
Cayetano said he did not mean to blame the Senate and was just trying to explain that the passage of the proposed P4.5 trillion national budget for 2021 will only be delayed by one day at the House, from Nov. 16 to 17, because of the abrupt suspension of session last Tuesday which is believed to be meant to deprive Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco and his allies of the opportunity to insist on their term-sharing agreement and possibly force a plenary vote on October 14.
The Speaker said he personally apologized to the Senate President for having offended him and told him that the context of his statement was not meant to pass the buck to the Senate.
“Ngayong tanghali (This noon), I called up Senator Sotto and I asked him if he can extend to the whole Senate that I apologize na ang dating ay kini-criticize ko o pina-pass ko sa Senate kung may delay (because it appeared that I was criticizing or passing the blame to the Senate if there’s a delay),” the Speaker said.
Cayetano issued the apology after Sotto earlier slammed the Speaker for putting the blame on the Senate for the looming reenactment of the budget following the decision of the House leadership to suspend their session until Nov. 16 after approving the money measure on second reading last Tuesday.
Senators have said that the delay in the House’s approval on third reading of the 2021 General Appropriations Bill (GAB), which was originally scheduled before Congress suspends session for the Halloween break on Oct. 16, would have a domino effect on the Senate’s timetable.
Sotto said the Senate will run short of material time to come up with its version of the budget before lawmakers convene the bicameral conference committee to reconcile the disagreeing provisions in their respective versions of the budget.
“The nerve! Passing the blame (on us), it’s unacceptable!” Sotto said.
Sotto was disappointed with Cayetano who maintained that the budget bill will only be delayed for one day since the House will approve the measure on Nov. 16, the day when sessions resume.
He said the delay in the approval of the House version of the budget will not merely be one day but would actually run into one month.
“He’s saying that it is only one day delayed. Why, is the difference between October 17 and November 17 just one day?)” an irked Sotto said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he called Cayetano on Thursday morning to urge him to resume the House session before All Saints’ Day “just to approve on third and final reading the House version of the budget measure and thereafter transmit the same to us.”
“I also told him the senators, especially the finance committee vice chairpersons, need at least one week to study their version and submit to the mother committee our reports and another week for the finance committee to consolidate everything and file their committee report,” he added.
Lacson said if Cayetano will heed to his call, he sees no more reason why the proposed national budget will not be passed before the end of the year.
“In so doing, we can start floor debates immediately after we resume session on Nov 16, or even before that. That way, we can ensure timely passage of the budget measure,” he said.
In a separate Facebook video late Wednesday afternoon, Cayetano said: “One day lang po ang diperensya and I hope that maging malinaw ito because kung magkakaroon po ng delay o reenactment (There’s just a one day difference and I hope it’s clear because if there’s a delay or reenactment), it will be because of the Senate, not because of the House, because we are only talking about only one day.”
Cayetano however said the House can pass the measure on Nov. 16 and transmit the same to the Senate the following day.
Deputy speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte said that while the House can choose to adopt the Senate version of the budget bill to avoid further delay just like Sotto suggested, the Senate can also consider doing the same.
“In the first place, we will consider that but where is their version?” he told reporters. “If it’s in line with the thrust of the members of Congress, why not? But they should also be open-minded to adopt also our version if it deemed fit that it is a better version.”
The tradition of the House of Representatives is to schedule for two or even more weeks the plenary debates on the national budget in order that congressmen can fully scrutinize the respective budget proposals for the various government departments, offices and agencies, and to assure economy and judicious allocation of scarce resources.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, a leader of the opposition at the House, said the Speaker erred in invoking Rule 55 of the House Rules on the closure of debates because it is “invariably invoked only on the last day of the scheduled budgetary deliberations when practically all of the respective budget proposals of the different departments and agencies have been debated on and scrutinized.”
This did not happen as the proposed budgets of 14 major departments and other numerous agencies and offices, including the constitutional commissions and the State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), have not been considered, Lagman said.
Lagman said Section 16 (5) of Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits either chamber of the Congress to adjourn for more than three days without the consent of the other, is mandatory, contrary to the opinion of deputy speaker Neptali Gonzalez II that the subject provision is “merely directory” and has “no obligatory force”.
“Neither House during the sessions of the Congress shall, without the consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting,” the provision said.
Lagman said it is a “futile exercise in semantical gymnastics to argue that ‘suspension’ (of session) is not ‘adjournment’ even when the House went on recess for 40 days without the consent of the Senate.”
He said the abrupt suspension violates Concurrent Resolution No. 11, adopted by the House and the Senate, which provides for the “Legislative Calendar for the Second Regular Session of the Eighteenth Congress,” wherein the first suspension of session starts only on October 17, 2020 to November 15, 2020.
“It is errant to claim that Cayetano’s utter disregard of the fixed calendar is the ‘prerogative of the House.’ What are Concurrent Resolutions for if they are not binding on the House and can be disregarded by the Speaker upon his sole option without the concurrence of the Senate in order to effect an amendment to the Resolution?” he said.
“The rules of the House bind the leadership and they cannot be amended arbitrarily or whimsically, contrary to the assertion of Gonzalez that “when the plenary decides something, that automatically becomes the rule,” Lagman said.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Malacañang is prepared to call for a special session if the proposed 2021 budget is not passed into law by mid-December.
“If a special session is needed to be called by December 14, Malacañang will do it,” Roque said.
He, however, said the session break in the House should not be a reason for the Senate to delay its conduct of its own deliberations on the proposed budget.
He reiterated that the Executive is banking on the commitment of Cayetano to pass the budget on third and final reading upon their resumption of session.
Roque stressed the urgency of passing the budget on time, noting that the measure contains funding for specific COVID-19 responses like medical assistance to indigents, fund for the establishment of new hospitals, purchase of PPEs, and for procurement of vaccines. – With Jocelyn Montemayor
“(It’s) a very important budget. It is the first budget that we will be passing to address the COVID-19 pandemic, outside of the Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan 2. The government’s complete stimulus package is contained in the proposed 2021 national budget,” Roque said.