RH bill: Does Aquino need to crack the whip?

Despite Monday night's victory for RH bill proponents, the highly charged session raises questions on the power of President Aquino's endorsement of the RH bill

MANILA, Philippines – The glass is half full, for both sides. The expected showdown on the Reproductive Health bill (RH bill) started Monday night, December 3, and it showed how extremely close the numbers are.

A proxy vote happened a few hours after President Benigno Aquino III met with members of the House of Representatives in Malacañang to tell them that he wanted a vote on the measure.

Voting 99-90 – a difference of 9 votes – the plenary rejected a simple motion made by anti-RH Palawan Rep Victorino Dennis Socrates that was meant to delay the proceedings.

“It was a close vote. It’s not something you can just ram down people’s throat…. The two votes give you an idea that the House is really not overwhelmingly pro- or anti- the RH bill,” Speaker Feliciano “Sonny” Belmonte Jr told reporters after Monday’s session.

Socrates was asking for 10 minutes to speak about his “pain” because he was unable to appeal last week’s plenary vote that resulted in the adoption of a substitute RH bill. This bill included amendments from Malacañang; its approval was seen as a major defeat for RH critics because the new version seemed more palatable to previously undecided lawmakers.

The bill seeks to provide reproductive health services – including contraceptives – particularly to the poor. 

Killer amendment defeated
A second vote Monday night happened – 91-73 – to reject a killer amendment introduced by another anti-RH representative, Deputy Speaker Pabling Garcia of Cebu.

It was a major victory for the RH bill supporters. Garcia wanted to limit reproductive health services to married persons, effectively defeating the purpose of the bill.

The wider margin – 18 votes – comforted some supporters of the bill, but Belmonte conceded that the first one was the “real vote” because some House members had left the plenary when the second vote happened.

But Garcia was also happy that bill sponsor Albay Rep Edcel Lagman accepted some of his amendments. 

“They admitted some of our amendments, especially the amendment on the Constitutional provision that the State recognizes the sanctity of family life. In other words, the state should not intrude into the affairs of the family like limiting the number of children the family can have,” Garcia told Rappler Monday night. 

Lagman dismissed the accepted amendments as minor. 

GALLERY VISITOR: Antipolo Bishop Gabriel Reyes, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Family and Life of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP)

Defying the President

Despite Monday night’s victory for RH bill proponents, however,  the highly charged session raised questions on the power of President Aquino’s endorsement of the RH bill.

Was his Monday push sufficient to get the bill passed?

Some lawmakers said the President needs to do more than that and crack the whip.

While it is true that Aquino’s lunch with House representatives succeeded in getting the necessary quorum that allowed the plenary to proceed with the period of amendments, the close vote also showed the risks of a mere pep talk.

Some of Aquino’s close allies in the House were expecting a vote on second reading Monday night, and they were surprised that many defied the President. For them, his message was clear. He wanted a final vote on the measure as soon as possible to allow the Senate enough time to tackle it before the Christmas break.

Others quietly blamed Aquino’s weak push for the RH bill when he called for a vote but fell short of imposing his position in favor of the bill, at least two lawmakers told Rappler.

The best example of how the House of Representatives can quickly implement the President’s wishes is the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona last year. In just a few hours, a total of 188 votes signed the impeachment complaint against Corona. But that did not just come about after a good lunch.

There are also fears that the 99 who voted against Socrates’ delaying tactics already included anti-RH solons who agreed with President Aquino to put the bill to a vote. It’s not a safe number.

Time to re-assess

Belmonte is confident that the quorum will hold in the next session days. But he could not give reporters an exact date as to when the bill would be finally put to a vote on second reading, which is usually the toughest stage of the legislative mill.

The President earlier told them he wanted the final voting this week.

“We have to try to recompute. We have to assess it with the others,” Belmonte said. Lagman is counting on the 2nd reading vote to happen on today, Tuesday, December 4 or Wednesday, December 5.

Belmonte said he chooses to look at the Monday session positively. “We are able to tackle it (RH bill). In the past, the moment you talk about it, somebody will question the quorum. It’s the first time in a long time that we are actually tackling the merits of the bill,” Belmonte said.

“My confidence level is still good,” Belmonte said.

“We are able to tackle it (RH bill). In the past, the moment you talk about it, somebody will question the quorum. It’s the first time in a long time that we are actually tackling the merits of the bill,” Belmonte said.

Besides, the President has not cracked the whip. Some RH bill supporters are counting on it to happen soon.

But the anti-RH bill camp has the same expectations from the Catholic Church. “The vote is close. If the bishops will be more assertive. I think we can win,” said Garcia. 

The showdown will continue. – Rappler.com