Senate pushes for special session to OK supplemental budget and solve deadlock

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 14) — The Senate is pushing for a supplemental budget to include the itemizations made by congressmen to the budget bill after it was ratified in the hopes of breaking the deadlock between the chamber and the House of Representatives.

Senate President Vicente "Tito" Sotto III told CNN Philippines' The Source that Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson yesterday spoke with San Juan Rep. Ronaldo Zamora to suggest that Congress convene in a special session to pass a joint resolution for a supplemental budget containing the House's itemizations of lump sums in the 2019 budget

"The suggestion was that, again, get back, recall the submitted [General Appropriations Bill] to us. And from there, we could probably amend or let the President veto that portion, then we can convene kahit [even] one day for a special session and pass a joint resolution approving a supplemental budget for that," Sotto said Thursday.

While not directly answering whether the House would agree to holding a special session to pass a supplemental budget, House Appropriations committee chair Camarines Sur 1st District Rep. Rolando Andaya told CNN Philippines' Newsroom Ngayon that they have always been open to talks on the budget.

"Kami naman, matagal na kaming bukas sa pag-uusap dito. Hindi naman ito kwestiyon ng ligalidad eh. Kwestiyon na lang ito kung gusto mong pirmahan o hindi," Andaya said.

[Translation: We have long been open to discussions on this. This is not a question of legality. This is a question if you want to sign it or not.]

Sotto has bucked signing the budget bill transmitted by the House to the Senate, saying that he may be charged for falsification of legislative documents by certifying the bill which contains provisions not approved by Congress - effectively blocking its transmittal to the Malacañang for President Rodrigo Duterte's signature.

This latest impasse between the House and the Senate is rooted from the House's itemization of lump sums and their realigning of funds in the budget after its final version was ratified by Congress.

Senators have said that this is illegal and unconstitutional, but congressmen have insisted that this is above board and that the Senate also itemized lump sums in the budget after its ratification.

But Sotto said the Senate's itemization of lump sums only pertain to their budget, while the House touched and shaved off ₱96 billion in funds from the Public Works department and realigned these towards certain districts, especially those that are represented by congressmen allied with Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

"[Itemization is] what has been done in all Congresses. Okay 'yun. Pero hindi eh. Ibang budget 'yung ginalaw mo … Ang kinuha mo [budget] ni Presidente and nilagay mo sa mga distrito niyo na wala sa bicam 'yan, wala sa usapan natin 'yan," Sotto said.

[Translation: Itemization is what has been done in all Congresses. That's okay. But no. They made changes to a different budget … They took the President's budget and placed it in their districts which was not tackled and agreed upon during the bicam.]

Andaya no longer wants to respond to these charges, saying that he does not want lawmakers to be battling it out in public when they are holding discussions behind the scenes.

However, House leaders have come up with their own allegations against the Senate, with Andaya claiming that the Senate removed billions of funds originally allocated for scholarships of rehabilitated drug addicts and former rebels.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Fredenil Castro and House Senior Deputy Majority Leader Rodante Marcoleta have said that senators also shaved off billions of funds which should have been for the Environment department's greening project, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, right-of-way acquisitions and foreign assisted projects.

"The Senate removed all those allocations and we don't know where they put them," Castro said.

Elections a 'major factor'

Sotto said the campaign season for the midterm polls is the "major factor" behind congressmen's moves in the budget, which has been delayed for three months.

Responding to this, Andaya said the same can also be said of the Senate, as some of its members are running for re-election.

"Budgeting is also the biggest political tool every year. It's not just an economic tool, it's a political tool. You have half of the senators seeking re-election at this time," he said.

House leaders have also accused Lacson — who has long been crusading against the supposed existence of "pork" or discretionary funding in the budget — of holding the budget hostage due to his grudge against Arroyo.

"It seems that Senator Ping Lacson is holding President Duterte and the entire Filipino people hostage to his continuing animosity towards our Speaker. He has obviously convinced the Senate leadership to do his bidding," Castro said. Lacson has denied this charge.

Sotto also said that Arroyo is not their problem, but the people around her, particularly Andaya and the other members of the House Appropriations committee.

Lacson has said that the Senate is looking at the possibility of the government continuing to operate under a reenacted budget until August, when Arroyo and Andaya have stepped down from their posts and replaced by new leaders.

"Siyempre magiging very cordial and perhaps ika nga eh mas magkakaroon ng impluwensiya ang Pangulo," Sotto said.

[Translation: Of course they'll be very cordial and perhaps, they say, the President will have more influence.]

READ: Political shakeup shows Duterte not in control – analyst

But the National Economic and Development Authority has warned that if the budget is only passed in August, the country's economic growth will only be around 4.9 to 5.1 percent, while growth can further stunt to 4.2 to 4.9 percent if the budget is reenacted for the entire year.

Economic managers also slashed the country's growth forecast yesterday from seven to eight percent to six to seven percent due to the delay of the 2019 budget.