Cayetano forces early budget approval, suspends session
MANILA, Philippines — In a power play described by a critic as an act of desperation, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday preempted any attempt to wrest the leadership of the House of Representatives from him at least until mid-November by forcing the early suspension of session and the approval on second reading of the proposed 2021 budget.
The Cayetano leadership unilaterally forced a voice vote on the P4.5-trillion general appropriations bill with the ayes prevailing over the nays, but at least one opposition lawmaker who was taking part via Zoom protested that he was forcibly muted by the secretariat and thus could not pose an objection.
The presiding officer, Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu, then suspended the session until 3 p.m. of Nov. 16 in disregard of the official legislative calendar, which showed that Congress should start its break on Oct. 17.
‘Desperately hanging on’
With the House now in recess, Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco, whose camp claims he now has a majority vote in the 300-member chamber, will not be able to call for the election of a new Speaker until November.
“This proves beyond doubt that Speaker Cayetano is desperately hanging on,” Buhay Rep. Lito Atienza said, showing reporters a photo of his laptop computer’s screen indicating the host of the Zoom session put him on mute.
“He has just publicly confirmed that he is losing ground that’s why he did it,” said Atienza, who backs Velasco.
“He didn’t care about constitutional integrity, throwing everything into the air and making Congress go on a long vacation,” Atienza said.
“He made a mess of everything, and he violated all the rules of the House. Many of us were objecting at the top of our voices but again, we were muted on Zoom and all our objections were thrown out the window,” he added.
“This is typical of a poor loser—If you’re losing, flip the table, burn down the house, as they say,” Atienza said.
‘Bastardizing’ the institution
In a statement on Tuesday evening, Velasco said Cayetano sealed his own fate by “bastardizing” the institution when he railroaded the budget and suspended the session in violation of House rules.
“Because of Speaker Cayetano’s desperate attempt to stay in power, he has bastardized the institution we swore to protect and respect and committed serious violations of the Constitution to save himself,” Velasco said.
Cayetano, he said, “knows very well that he no longer enjoys the trust and confidence of House members.”
He added: “This caper is the last nail [in] his coffin. Speaker Cayetano, your time is up.”
In a speech before he made his move, Cayetano slammed Velasco for insisting on the turnover of the House leadership on Oct. 14, in accordance with the terms of their “gentleman’s agreement.”
The Taguig lawmaker said the premature approval of the budget proved that, contrary to his rival’s assertion, he was not holding it hostage.
Malacañang thanked the House for passing the budget early. But presidential spokesperson Harry Roque declined to comment on the implication of the session’s suspension on Velasco’s speakership bid, saying it was an internal matter for the House.In bypassing the period of amendments, Cayetano and his allies agreed to form a “small committee” that will accept alterations to the budget bill that may be proposed by House members.
He said the small committee would “have full powers to entertain committee and individual amendments to be submitted to the committee on appropriations on or before Nov. 5.”
Chosen to form the small committee were known Cayetano allies, including Majority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, Deputy Speaker Luis Raymond Villafuerte Jr., ACT CIS Rep. Eric Yap, Bulacan Rep. Jonathan Sy-Alvarado, Quirino Rep. Junie Cua, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, Marikina Rep. Stella Luz Quimbo and Anakalusugan Rep. Michael Defensor.
In his speech, Cayetano again accused Velasco and his allies of planning to stage a takeover and “sabotage” the passage of the budget.
Earlier on Tuesday, one of Velasco’s loyalists, Oriental Mindoro Rep. Salvador Leachon, said President Duterte gave the Marinduque lawmaker leave to run for Speaker when the two men met in Malacañang on Monday night.
“It was more casual and like a father-son conversation,” he said of Mr. Duterte and Velasco’s talk.
“The President was categorical when he said, ‘Lord, it is your right time now. I have already spoken. You have to insist your right based on the term-sharing agreement.’” Leachon said.
“That’s why we expect Speaker Alan Cayetano to resign on Oct. 14 and to abide by the term-sharing agreement because his time is already up,” he said.
“In the same way that there is now the Supermajority Coalition in Congress because we abide with the wishes of the President during the speakership race 15 months ago,” Leachon said.
Roque confirmed Mr. Duterte’s statement to Velasco but gave no details, saying the meeting between the President and the Marinduque congressman took place quite late Monday after the Cabinet meeting and that he was not present at the meeting.
“It started at around 10 p.m.,” Roque said.
Mr. Duterte brokered the term-sharing deal between Cayetano and Velasco in July last year. Under the deal, Cayetano would serve as Speaker for the first 15 months of the 18th Congress, while Velasco would take over for the remaining 21 months of the term.
Last Wednesday, Cayetano offered to resign supposedly to give his rival a chance, but his resignation was rejected in a 184-1 vote by the chamber. Velasco’s camp called it a sham.
On Sunday night, Leachon and Atienza let out information that the numbers had started to shift to Velasco’s camp following the removal as deputy speaker on Friday of 1-Pacman Rep. Michael Romero, a follower of Velasco. Leachon and Atienza said “more or less” 160 members of the House supported Velasco as of Sunday night.
Cayetano’s camp tried to belie Leachon and Atienza’s claim on Monday, but word about the result of Velasco’s meeting with the President that night must have reached Cayetano in no time, leading to Tuesday’s early suspension of the session and the termination of the budget deliberations and the spending bill’s approval on second reading.
Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman called the premature approval of the budget “unprecedented in the history of the House of Representatives.”
“The plenary scrutiny of the national budget has been sacrificed [at] the altar of the ongoing House leadership squabble,” Lagman said in a statement.
Lagman said debates were still not done on the appropriations of at least 14 agencies, including the departments of social welfare and development, agrarian reform, transportation, tourism, health, foreign affairs, and public works and highways.
Deliberations on the appropriations for constitutional offices, such as the commissions on elections, audit and human rights, as well as for state universities and colleges and other executive offices, were also unfinished.
“The provisions on cloture and closure of debates have been indiscriminately invoked even as the proposed budgets of numerous departments, offices and agencies have not been taken up,” Lagman said.
He urged Cayetano to reconsider his actions.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III warned of a reenacted budget for 2021 following the House adjournment without approving the new spending bill on third and final reading.
Sotto said the House disregarded the President’s request to make the budget a priority. “There’s no way we can finish the budget if it is not submitted to us before the mandated break after Oct. 14. Do not blame us,” he said.
Sen. Sonny Angara, the finance committee chair, said the Senate was hoping the House would submit the spending plan to the Senate by next week so that the senators could begin plenary deliberations on the measure when sessions resumed on Nov. 16.
“As it is, the schedule is very tight,” Angara said.
He said he hoped the original schedule would be followed, but acknowledged that the Senate could not impose on the House.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto said he believed there would be no reenacted budget for next year.
The Senate could hold marathon discussions on the budget, he said.
“The Senate traditionally holds morning to midnight debates for two weeks on the General Appropriations Act. That will still be observed this year. There will be no reenacted budget. But a revamped budget is a certainty,” Recto said.
There’s enough time
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said he believed there would be enough time for the Senate to conclude plenary deliberations and avoid a reenacted budget.
Sen. Christopher Go said he hoped the House decision would not adversely affect the passage of the 2021 budget.
He said the people were expecting a new budget that would help them recover from the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the new budget is not passed on time, Go said, the country will not have the allocations for the programs needed for recovery.
“We cannot afford to have a reenacted budget not suited for COVID-19 recovery. Filipinos are suffering. Let us not make them suffer more,” Go said.
—With reports from Melvin Gascon, Leila B. Salaverria and Julie M. Aurelio
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