MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Liberal Party (LP) senators may have already severed their ties with the majority, but their counterparts in the House of Representatives will only decide on the matter until after the voting on the death penalty bill.
LP secretary-general and Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher Belmonte said the party members' vote on the controversial death penalty measure – House Bill (HB) Number 4727 – "takes precedence" over whether or not they will continue their coalition agreement with President Rodrigo Duterte's Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) .
"Darating tayo diyan. 'Di pa 'yan ang usapan namin ngayon. Ang priority namin is pag-usapan 'yung sa death penalty, so that takes precedence. 'Yung mga nangyari sa [revelations ni SPO3 Arturo] Lascañas, 'yung nangyari kay Senator Leila, 'yung nangyari sa Senate, kailangan naming i-process 'yan," said Belmonte, who clarified the caucus had been set since last week.
(We will get there. We didn't talk about that today. Our priority is to talk about the death penalty, so that takes precedence. The revelations of SPO3 Arturo Lascañas, what happened with Senator Leila, and what happened in the Senate, we need to process those.)
The lawmaker explained the LP is not only composed of senators and congressmen.
"Hindi lang naman kami ang LP eh. We have to remember this. Hindi lang ang senators, hindi lang ang congressmen (We are not the only LP members. We have to remember this. We're not only composed of senators and congressmen). We still have governors, we still have board members, we still have mayors. So we still have to go through the entire party process," said Belmonte.
The LP, which has 27 congressmen allied with PDP-Laban and another 5 in the opposition bloc, is against the reimposition of the death penalty. HB 4727 is a priority measure of Duterte, who counts more than 260 lawmakers as his allies.
The period of individual amendments for HB 4727 has already been opened. House justice committee chairperson Reynaldo Umali said the measure will likely be put up for a 2nd reading vote by Wednesday, March 1.
On Tuesday, other LP stalwarts attended the caucus, including chairperson and Vice President Leni Robredo, former president Benigno Aquino III, and senators Franklin Drilon and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV.
Why the delay?
According to LP president and Senator Francis Pangilinan, the dynamics in the House prompted the party leadership to give members more time to process their decision on their alliance with the administration.
"[May] nag-express ng concern regarding the timing, regarding the need to process it with their constituents. So humihingi pa sila ng dagdag na panahon. Gaya nga ng sabi ko, iba ang kondisyon sa House, iba ang kondisyon sa Senate," said Pangilinan.
(Some expressed concern regarding the timing, regarding the need to process it with their constituents. So they asked for more time. Like I said, the conditions in the House and the Senate are different.)
Robredo, in a chance interview, also said LP members will thoroughly tackle the issues before reaching a consensus.
"Mayroong pangamba sa halos lahat at mayroong agreement na simulan na ang pag-uusap kung ano'ng patutunguhan. Pero ang Liberal Party kasi as a party talagang kabahagi ng kanyang prinsipyo iyong parating pinag-uusapan ng grupo bago magdesisyon," she said.
(Almost all of us have concerns and we've agreed to start thinking about the direction we will take. But the Liberal Party as a party, it's really part of our principles to always hold discussions on issues before deciding.)
But given the recent developments concerning LP politicians – from De Lima's arrest to the stripping of other senators' leadership posts – why should congressmen stay in the majority for now?
"We'd like to think talaga na (really that) we have to be productive as elected legislators. As elected officials, we really wanted to be helpful. We believe na may mga points na dapat lang suportahan 'yung ginagawa ng executive [branch] (We believe there are points when we have to support what the executive branch does)," explained Belmonte.
"Pero when it affects our conscience and our stance sa party, we'd like to think may democratic space para puwede kaming magsalita rin (But when it affects our conscience and stance as a party, we'd like to think there is a democratic space for us to speak up)," he added.
'Ready to face consequences'
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, PDP-Laban secretary-general and Duterte's longtime ally, is bent on having HB 4727 passed on 3rd and final reading before Congress takes a break on March 18.
He already threatened to replace House leaders – among them several LP members – should they thumb down the controversial bill.
Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat Jr believes his party mates are ready to give up their leadership roles.
"At least for some who are already decided to vote against the death penalty and who are chairpersons of committees or who hold key positions, handa naman sila na iwanan 'yung mga position na 'yun, mga chairmanships nila (they are ready to leave their positions and chairmanships behind), and probably join the minority," he said.
Belmonte added that any LP member who takes a "principled position" will be "willing to accept the consequences."
LP members who hold key House positions include the following: