MANILA, Philippines?Using their massive numbers, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s allies in the House of Representatives Tuesday night crushed all objections and passed a resolution setting up a constituent assembly (Con-ass) amid opposition warnings it would allow Ms Arroyo to stay in power beyond 2010.
In a marathon session that dragged toward midnight, a former administration stalwart, ousted Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr., lambasted the majority vote as ?a charade.?
?We oppose this, this charade? Let us amend the Constitution after the term of President Arroyo. That is the time to amend the Constitution of the Philippines. The best way to amend the Constitution is by constitutional convention,? said de Venecia.
Other opposition lawmakers accused the majority of railroading the resolution, which was approved by acclamation at about 11:20 p.m.
Approval of House Resolution No. 1109 empowered Congress to convene itself into a Con-ass in which members of the House and the Senate would vote jointly?not separately?to amend the 1987 Constitution.
Senators have said this would render the upper chamber inutile because the larger House membership could override any Senate objections to proposed amendments.
?This means that under 1109, we are opening the entire Constitution to amendments .... This is where Malacañang?s agenda to keep President Arroyo in power will come in,? Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Teodoro Casiño warned the chamber before the House leadership pushed through with the vote.
?This will allow our politicians to keep themselves in power,? Casiño added.
He said that with the majority?s insistence on such an ?unconstitutional move, we are putting our democracy in danger.?
He said the members of the majority voted for HR 1109 on pain of losing their pork barrel.
He said one of the sponsors of the resolution had admitted on the floor that the "whereas clause" in the resolution that prohibits the term extension of the incumbent president and vice president, senators, congressmen, mayors and other elected officials whose term will expire in 2010, and that there would be elections in 2010 was "not binding."
Parañaque Rep. Roilo Golez said the majority pledged to have an exhaustive discussion of the resolution in plenary.
"If we cannot trust them [majority] on this very small pledge, how can the people trust the members of this Congress as a constituent assembly," Golez said.
Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan called the proceedings a "night of ignominy" where the administration allies once again used their numbers to push their agenda.
?Tonight we witnessed a railroading,? Ilagan declared on the floor.
Nueva Vizcaya Rep. Carlos Padilla, said the one-sided vote showed the ?tyranny of the majority.?
?I believe in democracy, but this tyranny,? South Cotabato Rep. Darlene Antonino-Custodio said.
Quezon Rep. Lorenzo Tañada III said he voted against the resolution because Congress does not need to pass one in its use of its inherent legislative powers. He added he is also against the "crass" manifestation that the House alone can act in amending the Constitution without engaging the Senate.
?This is a massive deception of the Filipino people,? Anak Pawis party-list Rep. Rafael Mariano said. Akbayan lawmaker Walden Bello said the vote was in effect an extension of Ms Arroyo?s term beyond 2010.
"Have we no shame? Let us stop this farce immediately," Bukidnon Rep. Teofisto Guingona III said.
With the resolution?s passage, Nueva Ecija Rep. Eduardo Nonato Joson likened the country to a woman fighting off a rapist, saying ?Huwag po kuya [Please don?t, sir].?
?Let us not gang rape our Constitution,? he said.
The House plenary will have to decide on when to convene the Con-ass, as well as the next steps to be taken, according to La Union Rep. Victor Ortega, chair of the committee on constitutional amendments.
To speed up passage of the resolution, the House leadership cut short the interpellation period and limited to 5 minutes the speeches of lawmakers opposing the voting.
At 9:30 p.m., Shariff Kabunsuan Rep. Didagen Dilangalen suddenly moved to close the debate after only five of the 13 representatives lined up? Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo, Guingona, Maza and Golez?were able to speak out against HR 1109.
Dilangalen claimed that the arguments raised against HR 1109 were repetitive.
At 9:53 p.m., the majority voted to shut down the debate and, after a 20-minute break, the minority resumed their opposition against what they called the majority?s ?railroading? of the Con-ass.
Padilla said the mad rush to approve HR 1109 had made ?this Congress the worst in the annals of history.?
Zamora questioned the haste with which it was being discussed in plenary, with only two session days left and with other key legislation pending for passage.
?Why the short cut? Why not go for the long haul, for the harder route? Why not eschew the easy path and make the amendments to the Constitution as important as the role of the committee on constitutional amendments?? Zamora said.
Gabriela party-list Rep. Liza Maza asked one of the sponsors, Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr., if it was possible under the resolution to postpone the 2010 elections.
"Everything is possible, but it depends on the sound judgment of our colleagues," Barzaga said.
Ortega also echoed the same view, saying that they would rely on "trust" basis in implementing the ?whereas clause.?
After an early afternoon caucus, the majority decided to tackle HR 1109 ahead of the other contentious measures pending on the floor, such as the bills on the right of reply and on the extension of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
Speaker Prospero Nograles then announced that the Tuesday plenary session would be devoted to HR 1109. As of 4:30 p.m., 211 lawmakers were present.
Critics have also warned that HR 1109 is a veiled attempt to stop the May 2010 elections and lift term limits on elected officials, including Ms Arroyo.
The original author of the measure, Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Villafuerte, had withdrawn support for it. He said he expected the resolution to be challenged in the Supreme Court.
Those pushing HR 1109 have said that they merely wanted to force the Supreme Court to rule on whether Charter change (Cha-cha) required the vote of three-fourths of all members of Congress, or three-fourths of the House and three-fourths of the Senate.
Arroyo?s tacit approval
The President herself gave tacit approval for Lakas-Kampi-CMD allies in the House to push for the passage of HR 1109, according to Nograles.
He said the decision to push for HR 1109 over his own HR 737?which seeks to lift constitutional limits on foreign investments through regular legislation, or the ?fourth mode? of Charter change?was reached during the official merger on Thursday of the ruling parties Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats and Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi).
?The leaders of Lakas and Kampi decided in that meeting that this is one of the things that we will push for. I will not deny that she (the President) was present when we decided on that, but she did not say anything,? Nograles said in an interview.
HR 1109 was aggressively promoted for signatures in the House by the President?s elder son, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo.
Although Villafuerte, the president of Kampi, decided to drop the resolution, Ms Arroyo?s allies in the House committee on constitutional amendments voted to have it debated on the floor ahead of HR 737, which has been pending for more than a month.
Nograles said HR 1109 was easier to pass in the House because it only required a simple majority vote (136) compared to his own resolution, which proposed a specific amendment and, therefore, needed three-fourths of the vote (199).
The latter is more difficult to muster.
?If I do not get three-fourths for 737 after nominal voting, the resolution is lost. It will never see the light of day, it will be buried. So we will not force a vote on 737 if we are not sure we can get three-fourths of the House,? Nograles said.
He added that his resolution would be tackled after HR 1109.
Congress is to adjourn on June 5.
Informed late Tuesday of the House plenary discussions on HR 1109, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile responded with a shrug.
?Wala yun (That?s nothing). How can they do it?? he told reporters.
Enrile reiterated the senators? position that the House move to amend the Constitution without Senate participation was ?an exercise in futility.?
?They need the Senate,? he said. ?It?s impossible for them to accomplish that. Huwag ninyo nang pag-abalahan yan (Don?t bother with it).?
Said Sen. Francis Escudero: ?It is only the President now who can stop the Cha-cha train in the lower house. She is, after all, the head of the newly merged Lakas-Kampi-CMD.?
But in a report, Reuters quoted Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno as saying: ?Nobody believes there will be a constituent assembly in Congress. Nobody, not even the sponsors of the resolution.?
Gabriel Claudio, Ms Arroyo?s political adviser, said he doubted that the House plenary debate on HR 1109 would affect the ?certainty and inevitability? of the May 2010 elections.
?I think the leaders of the House and the proponents of Charter change are just being consistent. They have said that as far as the proposal for Con-ass is concerned, they are just after a trigger mechanism for a case to be filed before the Supreme Court so there could be a final interpretation on the manner of voting by Congress in a constituent assembly,? Claudio said at a briefing.
?[The lawmakers] are very consistent about their observation that there is really no more time for actual changes in the Constitution to take place before the elections. So nobody is disputing the certainty of the elections in 2010,? Claudio said.
He added: ?This is all the more bolstered by the successful merger of the two administration parties.?
Nograles told reporters that HR 1109 was put on the table first because the right of reply and CARP extension bills had been discussed extensively.
HR 1109 needs only a majority vote of the House members to be approved because it does not propose any specific amendment to the Constitution.
?It?s a resolution that?s easy to get the majority [to vote for], as long as they?re all present. We won?t have a hard time getting that,? Nograles said.
?It?s not that we want to put it first. Let?s give it a startup ? It?s very simple. It?s just a resolution. It only needs a majority vote. It does not need three-fourths,? he said.
Asked if the constituent assembly would be convened after the approval of HR 1109, Nograles said he did not think so.
?Maybe after we come back [at the resumption of the session]. Maybe after the SONA (State of the Nation Address),? he said.
If HR 1109 is approved, Nograles will call for a leadership meeting to discuss the next steps.
?It would have to be implemented. How, I don?t know,? he said.
Interior Secretary Puno said the Philippines would ?completely lose its credibility? before the international community if it flip-flopped on its assurance on the holding of elections next year.
At a forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap), Puno said his decision to seek the ruling coalition?s nomination as its vice presidential candidate was proof that the polls would push through as scheduled.
According to Puno, amending the Constitution before the 2010 elections was now virtually impossible. With reports from TJ Burgonio and Christine O. Avendaño