June 20, 2006 (STAR) By Delon Porcalla - As they did last year, President Arroyo’s allies in the House of Representatives vowed yesterday to block the new impeachment complaint being readied against her by the political opposition.

Aside from Mrs. Arroyo’s job, House majority leader Prospero Nograles said House leaders, including himself, risk losing their own members in a backlash if the complaint reaches the Senate for trial.

Malacañang dismissed the planned impeachment complaint.

"We have much better things to do than respond to lame threats," Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said at a press briefing. "I think we’ll spend our time in a more worthwhile fashion on more pressing concerns."

He claimed the opposition is disorganized and they have no new evidence that would warrant a new complaint.

The opposition needs to obtain backing from at least one-third of the 236-member House to impeach Mrs. Arroyo and send the complaint to the Senate, which will act as an impeachment court.

A two-thirds vote in the 24-seat Senate is required for a conviction.

In a bid to show neutrality, senators — including those critical of Mrs. Arroyo — have refrained from making comments on the new impeachment complaint.

Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan and Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said the Senate would just have to wait and see what happens.

"I leave it to the good judgment of our House counterparts. The fight will be tough and only its outcome will determine whether it will be worth it or not. I hope it will be," Pimentel said.

Pangilinan opted not to display political partisanship when asked by The STAR to comment on the issue. "It would be best to refrain from commenting on the matter considering that if it reaches the Senate, we will act as senator-judges," he said.

Pointing to the unprecedented 2000 impeachment of President Joseph Estrada, Nograles said House leaders risk losing their posts if the complaint gets past them.

"If that impeachment complaint is sent to the Senate, Speaker Jose de Venecia is out and so is the majority leader (Nograles himself). And perhaps the committee chairmanships in the House will be revamped also," Nograles said.

He said in an impeachment case "all the positions are on the line, including that of the Speaker."

"It’s political reality," Nograles conceded. He cited the fate of Sen. Manuel Villar Jr., who was Speaker during Estrada’s impeachment and then allied with the administration.

But in an unexpected twist, he broke away from Estrada and sent the impeachment complaint against the former action star to the Senate after it garnered the required number of signatories.

Taking advantage of a parliamentary rule that bars lawmakers from taking to the floor unless allowed by the speaker, Villar sent the complaint forward with a marathon announcement that then Maguindanao lawmaker Didagen Dilangalen tried in vain to interrupt — to the cheers and applause of anti-Estrada spectators in the gallery.

A few days later, Estrada allies in the House staged a coup and unseated Villar.

Nograles said a conviction is certain if the new complaint reaches the Senate this time.

Mrs. Arroyo accuses senators critical of her, led by outgoing Senate President Franklin Drilon, of trying to undermine her with a series of investigations purportedly meant to uncover corruption.

She charges the opposition with shifting the battle to the Senate after her allies quashed the opposition’s impeachment bid last year.

The opposition plans to impeach Mrs. Arroyo on several charges, including corruption, next month.

Arroyo allies, however, predicted the opposition would not even file a complaint due to lack of new evidence. They also doubt that the minority bloc would be able to gather 79 signatures to impeach Mrs. Arroyo.

If an impeachment complaint fails to obtain backing from at least 79 lawmakers upon filing, it goes to the House committee on justice, which then decides if there is legal basis for impeachment.

The committee’s decision then goes to the entire chamber, which will decide whether or not to approve it.

‘It won’t take off’

Malacañang is confident that the new impeachment complaint will not take off due to lack of political and popular support, adding that Mrs. Arroyo has become "stronger than ever" after surviving last year’s impeachment bid.

Presidential chief of staff Michael Defensor said the current political environment now is much better than last year’s when the vote-rigging allegations against Mrs. Arroyo first erupted. This was followed by a mass resignation of her Cabinet members and advisers, and abandonment by several key allies including former President Corazon Aquino.

"The allies of the President are not just solidly behind her. They are even emboldened by the fact that the economy is doing well and things are taking shape. We have a strong political environment to do away with the impeachment process," Defensor told reporters.

He dismissed the new complaint being readied as a rehash of accusations that were dismissed last year.

"There is nothing new, everything is rehashed and if and when they file, we are ready to confront it," Defensor said, adding that Mrs. Arroyo’s attention is on running the country rather than facing another impeachment complaint.

"The people — and the surveys will show this, opinion makers are saying this — are really tired of just another impeachment complaint."

Without any new evidence, the planned complaint could face a brick wall in the House committee on justice, a rerun of last year’s impeachment attempt, Defensor added.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson claimed earlier that the opposition had unearthed new "explosive" information on Mrs. Arroyo’s alleged election cheating that could enable them to secure the required 79 signatures in the House. He did not elaborate.

Defensor also pointed out the legal question raised by Mrs. Arroyo’s lawyer, Romulo Macalintal, who contends that the opposition cannot file a new complaint because they still have a pending petition before the Supreme Court questioning last year’s impeachment vote.

Under the law, only one impeachment complaint can be filed over a one-year period against the same official. This bars the opposition from filing a new impeachment complaint against Mrs. Arroyo until mid-July.

The opposition appealed to the Supreme Court after losing in the impeachment vote, a decision that is still pending.

Macalintal said the House minority could either wait for a Supreme Court ruling on the matter or they could withdraw the earlier petition. But in either case, the opposition would still have to wait a year before they can attempt a new impeachment bid.

"They kept that case alive by filing an appeal before the Supreme Court… In other words, the decision of the House committee on justice is not yet final and executory," he said. "They have to wait for one year from the date it is withdrawn or from the date their appeal is dismissed."

It is uncertain if Malacañang will question the new impeachment complaint on that basis.

Defensor suggested that the opposition present an alternative government program instead of spending its time trying to force her from office.

"They should not just focus on bringing down the President, the government," he said.

Defensor also urged the opposition to wait for next year’s mid-term elections, which he said would be an acid test of Mrs. Arroyo’s acceptability to Filipinos.

Opposition legislators attempted to impeach her last year on corruption charges and allegations that she cheated to win the May 2004 elections.

Mrs. Arroyo has admitted having an inappropriate phone conversation with an unidentified election official before Congress could declare the winner in the balloting. But she denied rigging the election outcome.

The opposition failed to obtain the required backing from one-third of the 230-seat House to impeach Mrs. Arroyo. The House voted 158-51 to junk the complaint.

Mrs. Arroyo has been fending off an opposition campaign to force her from office since.

The opposition hopes to win greater support this time from legislators who may be disenchanted with Mrs. Arroyo after she declared a weeklong state of emergency in February over an alleged coup plot by military rebels and communist guerrillas. — With Christina Mendez, Aurea Calica, Paolo Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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