MANILA, January 15, 2003 (STAR) By Paolo Romero  - Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr.’s renewed efforts to amend the Constitution sparked a heated debate yesterday during the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (Ledac) meeting at Malacañang despite earlier assurances from President Arroyo that the issue of Charter change would not be discussed.

Those present at the meeting, including Sen. Manuel Villar, Interior Secretary Jose Lina and Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye, said some congressmen tried to raise the Charter change issue and drew adverse reactions from other lawmakers.

Bunye and Lina refused to say who brought up the issue but Villar said it came from De Venecia’s delegation.

"Somebody raised the Cha-cha (a nickname for Charter change) issue so the talks became heated," Villar said. "But in fairness to the President, she did not raise the matter, but the debates were really heated."

He said Mrs. Arroyo did not cut off the arguing lawmakers but instead politely reminded them that she wanted the Ledac session to focus on how to fast-track the passage of bills considered urgent by the Arroyo administration.

The council – consisting of the President, administration officials and congressional leaders – meets periodically to map out a legislative agenda aimed at improving the country’s development.

Villar said a congressman, whom he declined to identify, raised the highly politically charged Charter change issue and was supported by De Venecia, who proposes changing the country’s form of government from presidential to parliamentary to streamline legislation.

De Venecia told a radio interview Monday that the shift would be complete just before the 2004 general elections, just in time to elect members of parliament.

Villar said it was understandable for De Venecia to press the matter. "He had always been open. He has never denied that he’s pushing for it and he feels strongly that it should happen, so we can’t blame the Speaker for pushing his favorite topic," Villar said.

Bunye said Rep. Oscar Moreno interjected and tried to steer the discussion back to meeting’s agenda.

"We’re not supposed to discuss Charter change. We’re supposed to discuss the legislative agenda," Bunye quoted Moreno as saying.

Bunye reiterated Mrs. Arroyo’s stand that any proposed amendments to the Constitution should not prevent the holding of the next elections, scheduled for May 2004.

"So given that statement from the President and given the reaction from the Senate, it appears that the projection of the Speaker will not happen, at least not after the 2004 elections," Bunye said.

Mrs. Arroyo has remained cool on the latest Charter change initiative, saying the country has more urgent problems that needed attention.

On Dec. 30 she stunned the nation by announcing that she was withdrawing from the 2004 polls so she could concentrate on revitalizing the nation’s economy during her remaining 18 months in office.

The latest move to amend the Constitution is being pushed by Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives, led by De Venecia.

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