By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan

SENATORS expect a swift approval of the reconciled version of the 2022 budget bill, according to its finance committee chairman, ruling out a reenacted measure that could threaten the government’s coronavirus pandemic response.

Lawmakers are likely to ratify the P5.024-trillion budget next week before they go on a holiday break, Senator Juan Edgardo M. Angara, who heads the Senate body, said in a Viber message on Sunday.

“I’m hoping both the Senate and House panels will be very focused on the health and pandemic response, mainly because everything else will depend on how well the government manages that,” he said. 

Congress is under pressure to pass the bill by yearend to avoid a reenacted budget, which could delay government projects and expansion plans for some key programs amid the pandemic.

The measure should prepare the country for “all sorts of occurrences” amid uncertainty from the global health crisis, Mr. Angara said.

Party-list Rep. Eric G. Yap earlier said in a statement the goal of the bicameral conference committee that will start on Monday is to submit a budget “that will sustain our COVID-19 response efforts while supporting our gradual transition to full recovery.”

Senator Maria Lourdes Nancy S. Binay-Angeles, a member of the committee, said she expects a quick approval, noting that congressmen had few objections last year to the Senate version of the budget bill.

“If there are unsettled issues, I’m confident that it will be resolved quickly since both Houses are aware that the 2022 budget is important for recovery and response,” she said in a Viber message in mixed English and Filipino. “We need this to survive and get through the pandemic.”

Senator Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” R. Marcos noted that despite hopes for a quick appropriation approval, next year’s budget is “an especially difficult one, with so many competing urgent needs to both COVID-proof and jumpstart the economy.”

The country would lose out in case of a delayed ratification by both houses of Congress, Senator Richard J. Gordon, Sr. said by telephone.

“We will have a harder time if the budget is not approved fast,” he said. “I have to be optimistic and trust in the good conscience of the House members.”

One of the key disagreeing provisions is the increase in the Health department’s budget to P230 billion under the Senate version from P182 billion.

Senators also cut the budget of an anti-communist task force to P4 billion from the P28 billion allotted by congressmen.

They also raised the budget of the Department of Education by P6.7 billion, of state universities and colleges by P26.56 billion and of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority by P1.46 billion.

“The Senate will do its best to defend its version of the budget,” Senator Ana Theresia “Risa” N. Hontiveros-Baraquel said in a Viber message. “But will be open to possible compromises with our House counterpart to craft a truly pandemic- and recession-responsive 2022 budget while ensuring that we enact it on time.”

The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill on third and final reading in October. The Senate approved it this month. President Rodrigo R. Duterte will enact it once a reconciled version is sent to the palace.

Congressmen received copies of the Senate committee report at the weekend. “We got an electronic copy of the committee report on the General Appropriations Bill and we’re still reviewing it,” Party-list Rep. Ferdinand R. Gaite said in a text message.

Party-list Rep. Sarah Jane I. Elago said funds should be realigned with the return of face-to-face classes.

“We call on the bicameral committee to increase funding for health personnel, water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities, and COVID-19 mitigation strategies in schools,” she said in a statement. — with Russell Louis C. Ku