By Camille A. Aguinaldo
LEADERS of the Senate and of the House of Representatives failed to mend their differences over the ratified P3.757-trillion national budget for 2019 during a meeting with President Rodrigo R. Duterte in Malacañang on Tuesday evening.
The Senate stood its ground that Congress should transmit to the President the version of the 2019 national budget that does not contain the post-ratification changes made by the House.
“The President had asked us to pass the budget so that the programs of government can continue… We still met (after) the President had left but there’s still no consensus, unfortunately,” Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri told reporters in a mobile phone message Tuesday evening.
Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said Mr. Duterte opened the meeting by saying that he would not sign the 2019 national budget if the Senate leader would not sign it as well.
He added that Senator Panfilo M. Lacson suggested that the House recall the national budget it transmitted to the Senate, allegedly containing post-ratification adjustments, and transmit instead the version that was ratified by the two chambers.
“The President and members of the Executive department concurred (with Mr. Lacson’s suggestion). HoR (House of Representatives) appeared to have acquiesced but we have yet to see if they will follow the agreement,” Mr. Sotto told reporters in a mobile phone message on Tuesday evening.
House Majority Leader Fredenil H. Castro of Capiz’s 2nd district asked Senator Loren B. Legarda, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, and House Appropriations Committee chairman Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. of Camarines Sur’s 1st district of to “meet at the soonest possible time.”
“Pag-usapan na ito nang mabuti, one setting lang siguro. Let’s be open with each other at huwag na galawin kung ano ang panuntunan noong una pa, kung ano ‘yung tradition noong una pa na nagpapabilis sa pag-apruba sa national budget (Let us discuss this well in one setting; Let’s be open with each other and not change processes and traditions that had ensured the prompt approval of the national budget),” Mr. Castro said in a news briefing on Wednesday.
Asked if Duterte set a deadline for resolution, Mr. Castro replied: “The timeline is very short”.
“Sinabi ni Presidente na (The President said) finish it. We cannot afford to make it longer, the country and everybody is bleeding everyday.”
The House transmitted the national budget for Mr. Sotto’s signature last Monday. But the Senate leader asserted that he wouldn’t sign the measure if it contained post-ratification realignments of the House. Specifically, Mr. Sotto had alleged that the House realigned P79 billion of the Department of Public Works and Highways budget while Mr. Lacson claimed P15 billion of Health department funds were “manipulated” after the bill was ratified on Feb. 8.
“Maliwanag dito sa nakikita ng LBRMO (Legislative Budget Research and Monitoring Office)… Maliwanag na nagalaw at ang tinamaan nga ay ‘yung mga vi-net ng mga Cabinet secretaries ito, pagkatapos ililipat sa (congressional) districts. ‘Yun ang mabigat, after ratification (It’s clear, as the LBRMO saw… It‘s clear that the budget was altered and the projects vetted by Cabinet secretaries were affected and were transferred to congressional districts… after ratification),” Mr. Sotto said in a radio interview on Wednesday.
For Mr. Lacson, “[t]he bottom line for us in the Senate, we cannot adopt something that is unconstitutional because the provision in the Constitution is clear: upon the last reading of a bill, no amendment thereto shall be allowed.”
“So it’s a stalemate again because if the congressmen or the House insist on their printed copy as the enrolled bill, then it will never reach Malacañang.”
Mr. Lacson told reporters that the meeting was “civil,” even as he noted that House Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo was quiet during the entire discussion with the President. “She was quiet all the time. It was all ‘Nonoy’ Andaya. Nobody else spoke except Nonoy Andaya,” he said.
Ateneo Policy Center Research Fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said the latest developments on the budget did not necessarily reflect Mr. Duterte’s poor hold on Congress.
“President Duterte is probably waiting for the leaders of Congress to resolve this problem on their own, as the Constitution expects them to do,” Mr. Yusingco said in an e-mail when sought for comment.
“But the huge ramification of not enacting a new budget could push the President to flex his political muscles. And this could very well happen in the next couple of days.” — with Charmaine A. Tadalan
By Camille A. Aguinaldo