Senate caucus to review budget bicam results today

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Vicente Sotto III

THE SENATE will caucus today, Feb. 6, to discuss the final provisions in the proposed P3.757 trillion national budget for 2019 that the bicameral conference committee is expected to have reconciled and approved on the same day.

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III called the caucus during session on Monday evening after Senator Panfilo M. Lacson, a member of the budget bicameral committee, asked whether senators will be given the opportunity to review the contents of the final version of the budget bill before ratification.

The finance committee chair, Sen. Loren B. Legarda, said earlier during session that there will be a final bicameral conference committee hearing on Wednesday morning on the budget bill, with ratification targeted for Friday, Feb. 8. A small-group bicameral meeting has also been convened as per usual Congress practice.

Later in the evening Senate session after Ms. Legarda left the plenary, Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said Ms. Legarda relayed to him that the Senate contingent to the bicameral conference committee is scheduled to meet on Friday morning, so the ratification of the budget bill could come by the afternoon of that day.

Congress adjourns session on Feb. 6, Wednesday, but the legislative calendar allows for an extended session until Feb. 8. Session will resume between May 20 and June 7 before the 17th Congress ends.

“So it is the business-as-usual practice that on Friday, we’ll just be given the copy of the bicam(eral) report. It is as good as being routed. That is what we’re trying to avoid because we want to be accorded of the opportunity to review first the contents of the bicam(eral) report before it is routed at least to the members of the bicameral conference committee of the Senate, meaning the Senate panel. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anymore time to read what’s contained in that document,” Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson said.

Mr. Sotto then called the caucus in response to Mr. Lacson’s concerns.

“The Majority Leader and the Secretariat are hereby directed to call an all-senators caucus at 2 p.m., Wednesday in the Senate President’s conference room. Make sure that the chairman of the committee of Finance is present,” Mr. Sotto said.

Ms. Legarda said earlier in Monday session that a “breakthrough” has been reached between the Senate and House panels on the 2019 budget. She added that the technical staff of both chambers of Congress are “working on the fine print and the details” of the budget bill.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lacson is also appealing to President Rodrigo R. Duterte to use his veto powers to remove the “pork” inserted by lawmakers in the 2019 national budget.

“Mr. President, you have displayed your strong political will on several occasions. This time, use your line-item veto power over the 2019 appropriations measure by removing all the “pork” inserted by lawmakers who are incorrigibly insatiable and simply ‘beyond redemption,’” he said on Twitter on Tuesday, as issued in a statement.

Both chambers of Congress are still reconciling their versions of the 2019 budget, which has been delayed by amendments to the measure. Legislators have been accused of “inserting” allocations in the budget, which Mr. Lacson alleges is “pork.”

The Senate has said that its budget realignments are “institutional amendments” brought about by government agencies’ requests for additional allocations. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives maintained that the allocation for congressional districts’ projects was itemized in the budget bill, unlike the previous system before the 2013 Supreme Court (SC) ruled the previous Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) system as unconstitutional. — Camille A. Aguinaldo