The bicameral conference committee tasked with reconciling the Senate and House versions of the reproductive health (RH) bill suffered a setback Tuesday.
Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III invoked several rules barring the bill’s principal sponsor, Sen. Pia Cayetano, from forming the Senate contingent to the bicameral conference committee and from holding the bicameral meeting.
Citing Rule 12 Section 35 of the Senate rules, Sotto said only Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile could appoint the seven senators who would comprise the chamber’s panel in the bicameral meeting.
Cayetano’s office has yet to provide Sotto clean copies of the RH bill that contain the amendments he introduced on Monday night.
In a 13-8 vote, senators approved the measure on Monday night.
Sotto said he wanted to read the clean copies of the Senate and House versions as, according to him, he intended to become a member of the bicameral panel.
But as Senate majority leader, it would be imprudent for him to leave his post inside the session hall and attend the 4:30 p.m. bicameral meeting that Cayetano called in the Senate Tuesday.
Some members of the House of Representatives, who were to participate in the bicameral meeting, were already in the Senate building before the afternoon session.
Sotto said the bicameral meeting was considered a committee hearing.
Senate rules also did not allow senators to hold hearings when there was a session. Otherwise, this could result in a lack of quorum, he explained.
Cayetano, however, said Senate “tradition” allowed the chairman of a committee the “privilege” of naming bicameral members instead of the Senate President.
“It is my prerogative to select the members. I don’t think there is anything wrong (with that). It is absurd and contrary to ask to delay a process which I would like to continue,” she said.
Cayetano would have wanted her brother, Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano, and Senators Ferdinand Marcos III, Teofisto Guingona III, Francis Pangilinan, Panfilo Lacson and Sotto to join her in the chamber’s bicameral panel on the RH bill.
“Nothing prevents me from calling a bicam (meeting). I am offended that (I am) being imposed upon, not to call for a bicam. The House panel already agreed to hold it here (in the Senate),” she added.
The senator also said she was “offended” by Sotto’s apparent new “steps being taken to delay the process” of turning the RH bill into law.
Senate President Enrile said the tradition that Cayetano invoked was allowed only when no member objected to the bicameral lineup or its creation.
Enrile and Sotto are the Senate’s most vociferous opponents of the RH bill. Despite the numerous amendments they managed to include in the Senate version of the bill, they still voted “no” to its approval on second and third readings on Monday.
The two claimed the RH bill would promote promiscuity, result in an aging population supported by fewer younger people and merely accommodate the global birth control business.
Sen. Franklin Drilon stood at one point and proposed that Cayetano be allowed to meet with House members in a “prebicameral” meeting.
“It would not be a bicameral conference, your honor,” Drilon assured Enrile.
Drilon also suggested that the bicameral conference be held this morning instead after senators shall have gone over the clean copies provided by the Senate and the House of Representatives.
As it is, the schedule set by RH sponsors for the bill’s road to ratification and signing into law in Malacañang was already delayed.
Cayetano and a bill’s sponsor, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, initially wanted the bicameral conference held Tuesday, the reconciled version’s ratification Wednesday and its submission for President Aquino’s signature so it could become law by Thursday.
If the bicameral panel begins its work only Wednesday, such a schedule will have to be revised.
Sotto immediately clarified that his objections were not another attempt to delay the bill’s transformation into law.
“If I were intent on doing that, the unfinished business for this day alone would already take us four days to take up, but I’m not insisting on that,” he told Cayetano before Enrile ordered an end to their bickering.
Last week, Santiago warned that Enrile’s opposition toward the measure could lead to his “highly likely” removal as Senate President between January and February next year.
Santiago added that Enrile’s move of returning the gifts that she and Cayetano gave the Senate President for Christmas was seen as an indication of the animosity borne out of their differing positions on the RH bill.
Santiago quoted Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who had his own verbal tussle with Enrile over another issue, saying that Malacañang “has already been giving careful attention to (the) political contretemps” in the Senate and that the hostilities arising from the RH bill ran counter to “the flow of this present administration.”