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Congress leaders reach Cha-cha deal

The four top leaders of Congress have agreed to set aside their differences over how to amend the 1987 Constitution and concentrate on drafting proposed changes that they could present to the people for approval, reviving the Duterte administration’s bid for federalism.

Senate President Aquilino Pimentel III and Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez of the House of Representatives met on Wednesday night to break a stalemate between the two chambers of Congress on how to vote on proposed amendments to the Constitution.

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Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III and House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas were present at the meeting.

“Congress leaders have agreed to pursue the review of the 1987 Constitution by coming up with specific models and proposals in the form of actual constitutional provisions [that] hopefully could muster the required number of votes for these to be presented to the people in a plebiscite,” Pimentel said in a text message to reporters after the meeting.

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Fariñas showed reporters a picture of him with Pimentel, Alvarez and Sotto at the meeting and said in a mobile group chat: “Agreement [was] to first work on the proposed government structure & other constitutional provisions.”

Fariñas said the two chambers could work first on their proposals because “the matter of proposing amendments to or revision of the Constitution is purely a legislative action, which will then be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection.”

Stalemate broken

In a radio interview on Thursday, Alvarez confirmed a compromise had been reached to break the stalemate.

“We will talk first about the details, like the structure of the government, until we complete the [new] Constitution. Afterward, once we’re done, it will not make any difference anymore if we vote separately or jointly,” Alvarez said.

The question of joint or separate voting on proposed amendments had widely separated the two chambers.

The House insisted on sitting as a constituent assembly with the Senate and voting jointly on the proposals.

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The Senate, however, pushed for institutional equality, calling its own assembly, which would vote alone on draft changes and reconcile conflicting propositions in conference with the House.

The disagreement stalled efforts at introducing amendments to the Constitution that would allow a shift to federalism, a top priority and campaign promise of President Duterte.

No timetable yet

In his radio interview, Alvarez said the leaders of Congress did not settle what substantial proposals to prioritize but Sotto, speaking on the same program, said the leaders only “agreed on the premise that we need to shift to federalism.”

But even after the impasse has been broken, there is still no timetable for the amendment of the Constitution and the submission of proposed changes to a plebiscite.

Alvarez said Congress would see if it could still rush the amendments so that the plebiscite could be held simultaneously with the barangay elections in May.

If not, “there’s still the midterm elections” in May 2019, Alvarez said.

SC asked to step in

It wasn’t clear whether the end of the stalemate had mooted a petition filed by lawyer Arturo de Castro in the Supreme Court on Thursday.

De Castro asked the tribunal to resolve the question of voting on proposed amendments to the Constitution.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution have provided for a three-fourths vote by all members of Congress, a body with two chambers.

De Castro raised two constitutional issues in his petition—on the counting of the votes of the two chambers and whether the amendment of the Constitution is a political question outside of the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.

Some senators welcomed the agreement among the Congress leaders to break the stalemate but sought a briefing from Pimentel, while others stressed that the Senate had not yet reached a consensus on whether there was a need to amend the Constitution.

In the House, opposition lawmakers said the lack of agreement and clarity could still render the Charter change (Cha-cha) bid futile.

Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice said the House and the Senate should first resolve the question of voting, while Akbayan Rep. Tomasito Villarin said Wednesday night’s meeting was just for a “cooling-off period,” adding that “the motive of no-elections is still not lost in the meeting of minds among our congressional leaders.” —WITH A REPORT FROM JULIE M. AURELIO

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TAGS: Aquilino Pimentel III, Cha-cha, Charter change, Congress, Philippine news updates, Rodolfo Fariñas, Vicente Sotto III
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