By Camille A. Aguinaldo and
Charmaine A. Tadalan Reporters
CONGRESS LEADERS were scheduled to meet last night with President Rodrigo R. Duterte to discuss the impasse between the Senate and the House of Representatives on the proposed P3.757 trillion national budget for 2019.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said the President is stepping into the row between the two chambers of Congress over accusations of post-ratification changes in the delayed 2019 spending plan.
“I understand they will be having a meeting tonight, maybe that’s (budget) the agenda where they have to thresh out whatever differences they have,” he said in a press briefing on Tuesday.
“He will act as a moderator. He will listen. Maybe he’s just— I’m just speculating, he may have brought the two together just so they can talk and discuss….It should be the goal of all branches of government to unite and have as a goal the welfare of the people,” he added.
For his part, Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III said the meeting would provide a clear picture on the fate of the 2019 national budget, whether it would eventually take effect or a reenacted budget would continue. He said he would also present in the meeting the Senate’s findings on the alleged realignments of the House of Representatives in the budget bill.
“I think after tonight, it will be clear on what will happen (on the 2019 national budget), which is either they (House of Representatives) remove the internal realignment after the ratification or we have a reenacted budget until July,” Mr. Sotto said.
“That will be our position when we meet the President later. So it’s up to them to accept or not accept our proposal. Now, I will leave it also to the President whether to accept or not accept their (House of Representatives) explanation….I will wait for their reaction later,” he added.
Mr. Sotto said he would be accompanied by Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri, as well as Finance committee chair and vice chairperson Senators Loren B. Legarda and Panfilo M. Lacson.
For his part, House Minority Leader Danilo E. Suarez said House Leaders, particularly Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and House Appropriations Committee chair Rolando G. Andaya, Jr., are set to join the meeting with Mr. Duterte.
He also called on the Senate “(t)o be transparent, you must identify how you intend spend the money that’s being allocated within your district.”
“The House merely specified projects and programs that shall be funded,” Mr. Suarez added, in reference to itemized lump sum funds provided in the report approved by the Bicameral Conference Committee.
According to Mr. Sotto, the House realigned P79 billion of the budget for the Department of Public Works and Highways. Mr. Lacson, for his part, had claimed that P15 billion of the budget for the Department of Health was manipulated.
The House countered that the Senate had realigned some P75 billion in the budget after it was ratified, while according to Mr. Andaya, the Senate did not name the proponents of the funds it had itemized.
Mr. Duterte said in a speech Monday evening that he would not sign into law the 2019 national budget if it contained illegal provisions, but acknowledged that a continued reenacted budget would affect the country’s economic growth and law enforcement efforts.
During the Tuesday briefing, Mr. Panelo explained that the President was generally expressing his stand that he would not be part of anything that would be illegal or unconstitutional in the 2019 national budget.
“It could also mean that you settle your differences together so that we can have a new budget,” he said.
Mr. Panelo also believed that the issue over the budget would be settled soon given that Congress leaders were aware of the consequences of a continued reenacted budget for the year.
“I will make an educated guess — I think they will be settled. They will be settled, because they know that any reenacted budget will affect the operations of the government. Many will be affected… Maybe that’s why they have by themselves initiated this dialogue,” he said.
Mr. Sotto told reporters in a mobile phone message Monday evening, “I’m glad to hear that. I’ll save him the trouble by not signing it.”
For his part, Mr. Lacson said the House leadership should have taken a hint from the President’s statements on the national budget if they were indeed supportive of the administration’s legislative agenda.
“He (the President) is correct. What I can’t understand is why the House leadership cannot take the hint from President Duterte himself,” he said in a statement.
Still, Mr. Lacson said he hopes the meeting would be an opportunity for both chambers of Congress to resolve the deadlock on the national budget. “We won’t be there to quarrel but to resolve the issues surrounding the budget,” he told reporters in a text message.