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'Do not blame us!' Senators worry House mess may delay 2021 national budget

Senate President Vicente Sotto III and finance committee chief Senator Sonny Angara on Tuesday, October 6, expressed concern that the House of Representatives' move to defer its final reading of the 2021 budget bill may end up delaying its passage altogether.

"The House of Representatives has just disregarded the request priority of the President to pass the budget. There is no way we can finish the budget if it is not submitted to us before the mandated break after October 14. Do not blame us!" Sotto said in a message to reporters.

Congress – the Senate and the House – is scheduled to adjourn its session after October 14. However, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday afternoon suspended the House's session until November 16, the scheduled resumption for both chambers. This means the House is taking a break from session more than a week earlier than the Senate.

The issue is the national budget bill – the House suspended session after passing it on 2nd reading. A 3rd reading is required before the House passes the budget bill and sends it to the Senate for its scrutiny.

As Sotto pointed out, the Senate expected the House to pass the budget bill on 3rd reading before the break, so it can take it up as soon as Congress resumes session.

"We were hoping that the House would approve the budget bill on 3rd reading before the congressional break next week as was promised, so the Senate could begin its plenary debates upon resumption of sessions on November 16," Angara told reporters in a message.

"As it is, the schedule is very tight. I hope the original schedule could still be followed, but at the end of the day, we cannot impose on our House colleagues, but only plead and appeal to them," Angara added.

A delayed 2021 budget bill would force the government to operate on a reenacted 2020 budget until the new one is passed. Working on a reenacted budget would prevent the government from implementing new plans and projects. It would also entail a lot of extra bureaucratic work.

These are unwelcome under any circumstance, but even more so in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires the government to be nimble.

Cayetano's sudden move to approve the budget bill on 2nd reading, and then suspend session for more than a month, shuts the door on his rival for the speakership, Marinduque Representative Lord Alan Velasco – at least temporarily.

Velasco had dared Cayetano to resign on October 14, the date when it was supposedly agreed that Cayetano would hand over the speakership to Velasco. The two politicians earlier agreed to a "term-sharing" arrangement to split the speakership of the 18th Congress.

With the House off session until November 16, it is difficult to imagine how Velasco could manage a takeover on the agreed date.

Cayetano: Just a day later

In a Facebook live video on Tuesday evening, Cayetano said the House would continue working on the budget bill outside session, ironing out kinks so that it would breeze through 3rd reading and passage on November 16.

"Ang net effect po nito, instead of Monday (November 16), Tuesday (November 17) matatanggap po ng Senado. I'm asking for the understanding of our beloved Senate President and of the whole Senate. I don't think hindi 'nyo magagawa, hindi 'nyo maipapasa. Isang araw lang pinag-uusapan natin," Cayetano said.

(The net effect of this is instead of Monday, the Senate will receive [the bill] on Tuesday…. I don't think you will be unable to do it, unable to pass it. We're talking about only a day’s delay.)

Cayetano said he and Sotto had already spoken on the phone to clear the matter up, and the statement Sotto gave reporters must have been before their call.

The Senate is welcome to work with the House on the budget bill during the break so that the bicameral conference that follows the passage by both chambers will be "less contentious," Cayetano said.

"I've talked already to several senators, and they agree with me that although one day po is substantial, it is still not a reason na hindi maipasa (for it not to be passed)," he added.

Cayetano then said the public shouldn't worry, because all these will not delay the 2021 national budget.

"So God bless all of us. Let's put this behind us. Saka na natin pag-usapan 'yung politika (Let's leave politics for next time)," Cayetano said. – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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