MANILA,  May 25, 2004
By Paolo Romero and Jess Diaz  -  Despite opposition protests, the House of Representatives and the Senate passed separate resolutions yesterday converting Congress into the National Board of Canvassers of votes for president and vice president.

Left undecided was the proposal for a joint 14-member canvassing committee, to be made up of seven representatives each from both chambers of Congress. The proposal is expected to be taken up in today’s plenary session.

At the House, the passage of Concurrent Resolution No. 30 calling for a joint session to convene Congress into the National Board of Canvassers was marked by tumultuous debates and shouting matches between several congressmen.

Earlier in the day, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. led the majority caucus, composed of congressmen from the ruling Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD), the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), the Liberal Party and the Nacionalista Party, in approving the rules for the creation of the joint canvassing committee.

"It’s going to be through the joint committee as agreed upon by the multi-party caucus," De Venecia said at the suspension of the session yesterday at 5:37 p.m.

Asked about the plans of allies of Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) candidate Fernando Poe Jr. to block the formation of the joint committee, De Venecia said: "They will just be overruled and outvoted."

In the afternoon, after De Venecia declared a quorum with 155 lawmakers in attendance, House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales Jr. pressed for the approval of joint session resolution.

Outgoing Maguindanao Rep. Didagen Dilangalen immediately took to the floor and protested the move. He complained that the chamber cannot tackle the resolution since many of them had not received copies of the document.

After more copies of the resolution were distributed, Dilangalen questioned the priority of the resolution, which he described as "an ordinary bill" under House rules.

"This (joint session) is not an urgent matter, only when a bill is certified by Malacañang as urgent or under extraordinary situations can this be done," he said. "Was the election a calamity or a disaster?"

Gonzales replied that a report had already been issued by the committee on rules, signed by him and Makati opposition Rep. Agapito Aquino, certifying that the resolution is of the "highest constitutional priority."

Dilangalen, whose voice was already raised, motioned for a point of order.

When Gonzales objected to Dilangalen’s motion, the Maguindanao lawmaker and losing senatorial candidate waved angrily a copy of the House rules and moved to have the session adjourned.

"Why are we in such a hurry to approve this?" Dilangalen asked.

At Dilangalen’s insistence, Gonzales put the motion to adjourn to a vote.

Declaring that the "nays have it," Gonzales denied Dilangalen’s motion and stressed that the canvassing of votes for president and vice president is "the highest duty that we must perform at the point time and takes precedence over all privileged motions in the House."

Further attempts by Dilangalen to take the floor were declared out of order by Gonzales, who also ordered the House sergeant-of-arms to put the proceedings into order.

"He’s trying to stop the proceedings, citing so-called procedural lapses," Gonzales told reporters later.

Aquino was also perplexed by Dilangalen’s tactics.

"Why are they so hot on the matter?" he asked. "We were called here to do what we’re supposed to do —canvass the votes."

People seated at the left side of the speaker’s rostrum — composed mainly of Poe’s supporters — cheered and clapped at Dilangalen’s attempt to delay the proceeding but were ordered to keep quiet by Gonzales.

The resolution was finally approved after Camarines Sur Rep. Rolando Andaya Jr. asked Gonzales to put it to a vote.

The joint session is scheduled to open today with the ratification of the proposed rules and appointment of the members of the joint committee topping the agenda.

If everything goes smoothly, De Venecia and Senate President Franklin Drilon are expected to open the first ballot boxes.

But the prospect for a smooth canvass appears uncertain as Aurora Rep. Bellaflor Angara-Castillo refused her appointment as the minority’s representative to the joint committee.

Castillo told reporters that the KNP intends to oppose the formation of a small but powerful group to do the canvassing.

"We have no recourse but to go to court," she said. "This is a constitutional issue."

But Gonzales was optimistic that the Supreme Court will see the canvassing as the exclusive function of Congress.

Dilangalen promised to continue his opposition to the proposed joint committee but conceded that he is likely to be outvoted.

At the Senate, the opposition was more circumspect in its insistence that the counting of votes for presidential and vice presidential candidates be done by the Senate and the House in joint session and not by a 14-member canvassing committee.

Speaking for his colleagues shortly after minority members met in caucus, Sen. Edgardo Angara said it is for the good of Congress, the nation and the winners that a plenary canvass be done.

"Canvassing done by Congress in joint session in full view of the public will lower tension and ease the already volatile situation," he said.

However, maverick Sen. Joker Arroyo warned lawmakers that the proposal of opposition senators "is pregnant with mischief, a cover up, a ploy to frustrate the proclamation of the winners for a long, long time, way past Christmas of 2004."

He said if each of the 23 senators and 226 House members spend just one minute to examine each of the 176 certificates of canvass (COCs) and they work eight hours a day, lawmakers would take at least three and a half months, or until September, to finish scrutinizing all certificates.

"That does not include interpellation for each COC which cannot be limited in plenary debate. When that happens, Congress would have adjourned in May of 2005 and no president or vice president would have been proclaimed. Worst, Congress would not have done any legislative work because all the members would be tied down to the job of canvassing votes as if they were public school teachers doing election work," he said.

This is the reason why the Constitution provides that "Congress shall promulgate its rules for the canvassing of the certificates," he added.

Angara said a plenary canvass "won’t unduly delay the count since obviously, we will not question all COCs."

"The COC from Aurora (his home province), for instance, we will not question, that," he said.

He said besides lowering the level of tension in the country, Congress would not be abdicating its constitutional job as a canvassing board for votes for president and vice president if it directly does the task instead of relegating it to a committee.

"We can appoint a tabulation panel that will do the mechanical and ministerial function of adding up the votes, but we cannot leave the decision-making to a committee," he stressed.

Under the plan for the majority in the Senate and the House, the proposed joint committee would have the power to decide to include or exclude in the canvass questioned COCs.

Upon the request of opposition senators, the Senate did not discuss the proposed canvassing rules yesterday. The rules would be taken up in the joint session today.

The chamber, however, approved the resolution converting Congress into a canvassing board.

Angara said they preferred that the canvassing rules be debated in an open joint session.

"We are hopeful that we can convince our colleagues and our people on the wisdom of our proposal," he said.

Reminded that they could be outvoted by their pro-administration colleagues, Angara said they would accept the outcome of the debates provided these are done in public session.

Senate President Franklin Drilon and his majority colleagues also held a caucus and agreed to support the joint committee canvass proposal.

He said if the rules are approved in today’s joint session, he would start the canvass by opening all the COCs in the order that they have been received by the Senate.

A ballot box containing the COC from Sarangani province also contains the COC intended for the Commission on Elections for its count of votes for senatorial candidates.

Drilon said the Comelec informed him that election officers in Sarangani mistakenly placed the COC in the ballot intended for the Senate and requested that the box be opened and the COC containing the senatorial votes be turned over to them.

But Angara objected to the request, saying the ballot box should be opened during the joint session of Congress to avoid accusation that its contents have been altered.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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