Senate President pushes for constitutional reform, federalism

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Senate President Koko Pimentel opens the second regular session of the 17th Congress with a promise not to silence the opposition.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 24) — The Constitution needs to be revisited, Senate President Koko Pimentel said as senators resumed regular session ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday.

"Of course I will push that we study the revision of the Constitution, hindi lang iyan (not just for) for federalism purposes but even for the economic provisions," Pimentel told reporters as he revealed his priority legislation for the second regular session of the 17th Congress.

Leaders of both houses of Congress are expected to discuss on Wednesday guidelines of the planned constitutional assembly on January or February 2018.

A constitutional assembly will convene Congress as a body to lead in introducing changes to the 1987 Constitution.

Related: Solons say yes to charter change, mixed reactions to federalism

Pimentel underscored the need to shift to a federal form of government, which Duterte has endorsed since the campaign period and during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 26, 2016.

"We will empower our regions to determine their development plans, their overall direction through the shift to federalism," Pimentel said. He is also president of PDP-Laban, Duterte's party when he ran for presidency.

Under federalism, the country will be divided into autonomous regions or states. Duterte, the first president from Mindanao, has said federalism would bring lasting peace in Mindanao, whose leaders have been pushing for an autonomous Bangsamoro region.

Pimentel said Duterte is expected to certify the Bangsamoro Basic Law as "urgent" or important, days after receiving a new draft for the proposed law on July 17.

"We will pursue a path to lasting peace in Mindanao by addressing the valid concerns of our Muslim brothers and sisters through the Bangsamoro Basic Law," Pimentel said.

The tax reform package of the Duterte administration also tops Pimentel's priority legislation.

"We will ease the burden of working and middle-class Filipinos while ensuring that all government programs remain funded through the Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Act or TRAIN," he said.

He also promised to work on strengthening the country's anti-terrorism law amid the terror crisis in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, which prompted Duterte to declare martial law throughout Mindanao on May 23.

The Senate under his watch will also improve basic services through the proposed national ID system and universal health care act, Pimentel said.

Meanwhile, the death penalty bill which was passed by the House of Representatives will be discussed by the upper chamber but is not a priority measure, Pimentel said.

"We have 1, 242 bills and 297 resolutions pending before our committees. More will come as we realize new ideas to improve our laws to better serve the public and improve the quality of life of all Filipinos," Pimentel told his colleagues.

Pimentel: We won't silence the minority

Twenty out of 23 senators attended the resumption of session. Three minority lawmakers were absent: Senator Kiko Pangilinan who was sick, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV who was out of the country, and Senator Leila de Lima who is detained at Camp Crame for drug charges.

Pimentel promised he will not silence the minority.

"We should have a voice or the position of the minority in the senate to check the majority," he said.

Senator Risa Hontiveros, a member of the minority Liberal Party who was present at the session, said the public can "expect a faithful opposition."

Other members of the opposition include Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and Senator Bam Aquino.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, who effectively resigned from his Senate post after being confirmed member of Cabinet, was present at the session hall to watch his former colleagues.

He was with other members of the presidential cabinet, including Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, Socio-economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

After the session, senators and Cabinet members are expected to head to Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City for Duterte's second SONA.

CNN Philippines' Cecille Lardizabal contributed to this report.