(STAR) By Marvin Sy - The Senate passed on third and final reading last night the P1.126 trillion budget for next year.

With a vote of 16-0 with no abstentions, the Senate approved the 2007 General Appropriations Act after more than two months of deliberation.

"This is the first time that the budget was approved on Dec. 4 for the last 11 or 12 years that Iíve been here," Sen. Franklin Drilon said.

In the Senate version, the programmed appropriations stood at P573.9 billion.

The approved unprogrammed fund was P8.4 billion less than what the House of Representatives approved in its version of the 2007 budget.

Drilon, Senate committee on finance chairman, admitted that the Senateís slashing of the House-approved programmed funds would be the main point of contention during the bicameral conference committee debate, which is expected to start within the week.

The Senate argued that the House committed an illegal act when it realigned around P8 billion in allocations for interest payments on foreign debt with the programmed appropriations for infrastructure programs.

According to the House, its assumptions were based on the stronger peso and stock market.

In the case of the unprogrammed funds, the Senate approved a total of P46.4 billion, representing a reduction of P20.59 billion from the House version.

Drilon said the reduction primarily consisted of "one-lined" items amounting to a total of P30.5 billion for social and infrastructure projects.

Another P5.9 billion under the unprogrammed funds for the payment of the governmentís obligation to the Chinese contractor in the North Rail project was also deleted by the Senate.

Drilon pointed out that in essence, the budget, as proposed by the President, was retained by the Senate except for some amendments.

In the case of the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the Senate adopted the recommendation of Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile to reduce its budget from P84.19 million to P1.

Enrile has long been a critic of PCGG, a fact that became more evident particularly during the Senate hearings on the losses of the Philippine Communications Satellite Corp. and its related companies.

The Supreme Court also suffered a P1.45 billion cut in its budget, largely on Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiagoís demand.

Santiago, still fuming over her non-inclusion in the short-list of nominees for the post of chief justice submitted by the Judicial and Bar Council to the President, demanded that the SCís budget be reverted back to its 2005 level.

Under the Presidentís budget, the SC and lower courts were given a total of P8.15 billion while under the 2005 budget, the figure amounted to only P6.7 billion.

The JBC is chaired by Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban and Santiago blamed him for her non-inclusion in the short-list of nominees.

The Senate also adopted a motion by Santiago to reduce the budget of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACom) to P100.

In 2005, Santiago recommended a budget of P1 for the VFACom, which she wanted abolished. She said VFAComís function was a mere duplication of the functions of the Legislative Oversight Committee on the VFA.

Drilon also noted that Senators Panfilo Lacson and Alfredo Lim, both Manila mayoralty candidates, have decided to waive their share in the priority development assistance fund or pork barrel. Each senator receives a total of P200 million in PDAF.

Drilon said he would try to schedule the bicameral conference committee hearings within the week.

He said that he expects the bicameral conference committee to finish its debates within two weeks or just before Congress adjourns.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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