Budget approval by October 16 'very viable,' says House appropriations panel chair

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, October 10) — The House of Representatives can pass the proposed 2021 budget within the special session called for by President Rodrigo Duterte, the head of the appropriations panel said amid other lawmakers’ concerns that four days are not enough to scrutinize the spending bill.

“October 16 to pass the budget is very, very viable,” Rep. Eric Yap, chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, told CNN Philippines on Saturday.

House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano will meet with leaders of the lower chamber on October 12 to discuss plans for the resumption of budget hearings the next day, Yap said. He said he will attend the meeting along with House Majority Leader and Committee on Rules chairman Ferdinand Martin Romualdez and Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte, among others.

Yap said there are two options: withdraw the second reading approval and reopen the plenary debates, or pass the budget on third and final reading by October 16, before the congressional break.

In a Facebook live video late Saturday afternoon, Cayetano said there’s already a caucus with “majority members” to work on the budget over the weekend, showing an ongoing video teleconferencing on his laptop.

“Ako, nakikiusap sa lahat isantabi muna natin ang pulitika, magtulong-tulong muna tayo sa budget,” Cayetano said. “At least 'yung grupo namin, I can assure you, mga kababayan, we will be focusing on the budget.”

[Translation: I am appealing to all, let us set aside politics and work together for the budget. At least our group, I can assure you, fellow Filipinos, we will be focusing on the budget.]

On Tuesday, Cayetano abruptly moved to pass the General Appropriations Bill on second reading and suspend session until November 16. This move is seen to prevent Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco from taking the top post on October 16 despite the term-sharing deal brokered by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019.

Duterte on Friday called for a special session of Congress on October 13 to 16, which will prompt the House to reconvene. He also certified the budget bill as urgent. This came a day after he addressed the budget mess in an unscheduled public speech, repeatedly telling squabbling factions in Congress to resolve the issue immediately or else he would take action.

While lawmakers, including Cayetano and Velasco welcomed the President’s move, some say the four-day period is too short to pass the budget. Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman on Saturday called on the President to add four more days, possibly October 19 to 22 so amendments can be discussed and approved by the plenary.

Meanwhile, Bagong Henerasyon Party-list Rep. Bernadette Herrera-Dy said the 25-member capacity limit in the sessional hall should be lifted to allow more lawmakers to physically attend the session, subject to social distancing rules. Some of the congressmen who were present via the teleconferencing platform Zoom during the last hearing complained that they were put on "mute" during the voting, but Deputy Speaker Neptali Gonzales, a Cayetano ally, said it was "for technical reasons."

Some senators previously raised concerns that the alleged political maneuverings in the House will lead to a reenacted budget, which means the country will run using the financial plan for the previous year. This is prevented by the President’s call for a special session, Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III said.

Senators will also have a caucus on Monday to discuss the budget, Senator Miguel Zubiri said.

The proposed ₱4.5-trillion national spending plan for next year includes funds for pandemic response and recovery, including subsidies to ailing industries and vaccine purchases.

CNN Philippines' Lois Calderon and Eimor Santos contributed to this report.