Lawmakers move to ensure budget passage

By Charmaine A. Tadalan, Reporter

MEMBERS OF Congress, both in the Senate and House of Representatives, are taking steps to ensure the timely passage of the P4.5-trillion national budget for 2021 after the speakership row threatened to delay its enactment.

Several House members representing different camps held a joint press conference on Sunday to give assurance of their commitment to tackle and pass the budget.

They also called on “troublemakers” to prioritize next year’s spending plan.

Concerns on the possible delay of the enactment of the 2021 national budget arose when the House of Representatives suspended sessions without passing its version on final reading. The suspension also comes weeks before the Oct.17-Nov. 15 break.

This stemmed from the 15-21 term-sharing agreement between Speaker Alan Peter S. Cayetano and Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Q. Velasco, which the former has now rejected.

Mr. Cayetano on Oct. 6 suspended plenary sessions until Nov. 16 after the budget was passed on second reading.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte has since issued Proclamation 1027 directing the House to hold special sessions from Oct. 13-16 to pass the budget and prevent a reenacted budget scenario.

“The President’s call for a special session is very clear, that is for the deliberation and approval of the budget. Budget first, budget is a priority. Politics later,” House Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund F. Villafuerte, Jr., who represents the 50-member Nacionalista Party in the lower chamber, said in an online press conference.

Mr. Villarfuerte — who was joined by Cavite Rep. Elpidio F. Barzaga, Jr., chair of the House National Unity Party — also said the four-day special session is enough for them to pass the budget on third reading, citing that no one from the minority has so far expressed opposition.

Caloocan Rep. Edgar R. Erice assured that the Liberal Party, which has memberships in both the majority and minority blocs, will adhere to the President’s call of passing the budget on third and final reading on or before Oct. 16.

House Minority Leader Bienvenido M. Abante, Jr. said members from the minority will abide by the rules and ensure the budget’s swift passage without compromising scrutiny.

“Troublemakers won’t come from the minority. We are united in approving the budget,” Mr. Abante said.

Majority Floor Leader Martin G. Romualdez recently said the House ‘supermajority’ will enforce the term-sharing deal after the passage of the budget on third reading on Oct. 16.

“I assure my esteemed colleagues that the gentleman’s agreement will be honored after the approval of the national budget for 2021 on third and final reading on Friday, October 16,” he said in a Viber message.

On the other hand, House Deputy Speaker Prospero A. Pichay, Jr. and Anakalusugan Party-list Rep. Michael T. Defensor, along with his colleagues in the Lakas-Kampi CMD, remained firm in maintaining the status quo.

Meanwhile, a senator proposed on Sunday that special sessions be conducted between Nov. 9-13 to tackle the budget. “We will debate on the budget from Nov. 9 to 13. We can finish it within five to seven days and allot two weeks for the bicam (bicameral conference committee),” Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said over DzBB radio.

“Congress can send to Malacanang the 2021 GAA (General Appropriations Act) by the first week of December so that the President can sign it before January 1, 2021.”

Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara, chair of the finance committee, said in a phone message he will support initiatives to pass the 2021 spending plan, provided it is “legal and constitutional.”

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said he will look into whether a directive from the President is warranted to reopen sessions, considering it is only suspended.

“I will check on whether we may convene without the President declaring a special session because we are only suspended,” Mr. Sotto said in a phone message on Sunday.

The finance committee’s vice-chair, Senator Panfilo M. Lacson, underscored the importance of the budget’s prompt passage as the country addresses the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Without the 2021 spending plan, he said, the government will have no immediate funding for vaccine procurement, among other response measures outlined in the budget proposal.

Palace Spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr., meanwhile, reiterated on Sunday Mr. Duterte’s appeal for House members to set aside politics for now and focus on the budget.

“Uulitin ko po, ang panawagan ng Presidente, itigil muna po ang politika diyan sa mababang kapulungan para maipasa ang proposed budget ng 2021 (I will repeat the President’s appeal, halt the politicking in the lower chamber so that the 2021 budget can be passed),” Mr. Roque said over state-run PTV station.

The signing of the 2019 budget was delayed for four months due to an impasse between the House and the budget department, and later with the Senate, causing the economy to slow down to 5.8% in the first quarters of 2019 from 6.2% the previous year. — with Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Gillian M. Cortez

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