172-32  vote  kills  impeachment

[PHOTO AT LEFT - COMMON SENSE WINS: Speaker Jose de Venecia (center) is flanked by Majority Leader Prospero Nograles, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman, justice committee chairman Simeon Datumanong, and Deputy Speaker Raul del Mar after the 17-hour session that wrote finis to the second impeachment case against President Arroyo at the House of Representatives yesterday morning. De Venecia said ‘common sense’ won in the proceedings.]

MANILA, AUGUST 25, 2006 (STAR) By Jess Diaz - Like a rerun of last year’s proceedings, President Arroyo’s allies overwhelmingly crushed the latest impeachment bid against her yesterday after a marathon sleepless overnight session in the House of Representatives.

But yesterday’s opposition defeat was more telling as their numbers dwindled when several congressmen either swung to the other side or simply did not show up.

Voting 173-32, with one abstention, the House upheld a ruling last week by its justice committee to dismiss the impeachment complaint on a technicality, preventing a potentially explosive trial in the Senate.

After the drawn-out proceedings, Malacañang again extended its hand of reconciliation to the opposition while its allies in the House urged their colleagues to finally buckle down to work.

But Mrs. Arroyo’s foes vowed to fight on to oust her, effectively prolonging the yearlong political crisis that has debilitated the country.

However, yesterday’s results were so disastrous that opposition leaders in the House could not say if they would make a third attempt next year to impeach Mrs. Arroyo.

The 51 lawmakers who voted for impeachment last year shrunk yesterday to 32 while the number of those opposed went up. Last year, 158 House members voted to junk the first impeachment case.

Of the 30 lawmakers who did not attend yesterday’s proceedings, 12 of them voted to impeach Mrs. Arroyo last year. Four in the minority bloc who skipped last year’s vote were again no-shows yesterday.

Seven congressmen who voted for impeachment last year sided with Mrs. Arroyo’s allies this time. Among them was Makati Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr. "Perhaps the majority does not know the truth (behind the impeachment charges), but it seems the minority doesn’t have it, and this is the decisive reason for my vote," he said,

Another was Bataan Rep. Antonino Roman. He said the allegations in the impeachment complaint were not specific enough to support the charges.

For one, he said, they failed to establish the connection between Mrs. Arroyo and the spate of killings of left-leaning activists and journalists that were allegedly condoned by the administration.

Long night

Like the first round last year, the House vote blocked a potentially explosive trial in the opposition-controlled Senate on allegations of vote-rigging, corruption, human rights abuses and violations of the Constitution.

As the 17-hour session wound down and some legislators yawned or appeared to doze off, Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. called the vote a victory for a country that has been constantly hamstrung by partisan politics.

"After 17 hours of grueling debate, no sleep and fatigue, I am happy to report to our nation, to our people that we have finally put an end to the impeachment complaint," De Venecia said in a speech.

He urged Mrs. Arroyo’s foes to end "poisonous, disruptive politics" and concentrate on helping Mrs. Arroyo solve the country’s myriad problems.

Mrs. Arroyo’s conviction would have been assured, De Venecia predicted, if the impeachment complaint had hurdled the House "considering the mood of the Senate."

"It would mean that all the impressive gains we have achieved, especially fiscal reforms, would have been reversed," he said. "Thank God common sense prevailed in this chamber."

During televised debate that began at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, pro-Arroyo lawmakers portrayed the impeachment bid as a batch of opposition propaganda riddled with legal defects.

Voting, with each legislator allocated three minutes to explain their reasoning, began at 2 a.m. and lasted eight hours. As the public gallery thinned out, some lawmakers asked to vote out of turn so they wouldn’t miss early flights home.

While many were eager to speak during the televised debate, one lawmaker seemed exasperated and simply yelled "Yes!" from his seat when asked if he was backing the committee ruling to junk the impeachment complaint.

Echoing earlier opposition allegations, Rep. Rolex Suplico claimed the Arroyo administration had bought support with bribes and pork-barrel projects.

"Did the President violate her oath of office? The answer, my friends, is that we and the Filipino people will never know," Suplico said.

Opposition Rep. Ronaldo Zamora, who just a month ago underwent a quadruple heart bypass operation, urged Mrs. Arroyo to publicly address the allegations against her.

"Talk to our people heart-to-heart," he said. "Answer the questions and put an end to a whole year of too many questions left unanswered and too many solutions that will do our country no good at all."

Ilocos Norte Rep. Imee Marcos, who endorsed last year’s impeachment complaint but was a no-show during the voting when her presence mattered most, redeemed herself by staying overnight to wait for her turn to vote.

She described the majority bloc’s victory as "pure terrorism by numbers."

With little sign of mass protests that could lead to a "people power" revolt like those which have ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and Mrs. Arroyo’s immediate predecessor, Joseph Estrada in 2001, the next battleground appears to be local and congressional elections in May, which give the opposition a chance to whittle down the dominance of Mrs. Arroyo’s allies in the House.

"Watching the murder of the impeachment complaint was wasting time," said Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr., urging the public to vent their anger in next year’s mid-term elections. "The people should just remember the killers and punish them."

No ceasefire

De Venecia said Mrs. Arroyo called immediately after the vote and said she was happy that the debates were over.

Mrs. Arroyo’s chief political adviser, Gabriel Claudio, said Malacañang is "thankful" to Congress for ending the impeachment issue and is "extending the hand of reconciliation" to the opposition.

"The sooner we are able to bind our wounds, the sooner that we are able to get the process of healing underway, the sooner the nation will be on the road to better harmony," he told dzBB radio. "We trust that the issue of impeachment will be replaced by more important issues."

"As the impeachment curtain comes down, we hope that the opposition would now allow the country to close the final chapter of extreme partisanship and national division," Mrs. Arroyo’s spokesman, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, said in a statement. "Again, we ask our detractors to join us in the march for the unity, security and prosperity of the people," he said.

Mrs. Arroyo’s son, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel Arroyo, vowed to avoid animosity.

"Believe me it’s no joke to hear your good friends lambast your mother on a daily basis," he said as he voted against the impeachment bid. "But let me assure them that I harbor no ill feeling toward them because this is part of a healthy democracy."

Deputy Majority Leader Abraham Mitra appealed for unity between both sides. "Let’s leave behind the division the impeachment caused. We can now work together so the country can finally move forward. Let’s work on the gains we have achieved."

Bukidnon Rep. Juan Miguel Zubiri said "it’s time we put this behind us and work to alleviate the plight of our people particularly those in the countryside."

The Liberal Party faction that remained on Mrs. Arroyo’s side praised yesterday’s vote. Ilocos Sur Rep. Eric Singson, the party’s executive vice president, said attempts to remove Mrs. Arroyo "have been very distracting and time-consuming" and urged his colleagues to "get down to the most important task of nation-building."

Opposition legislators spurned Mrs. Arroyo’s olive branch. They warned that dismissing the impeachment case without hearing the evidence would keep alive the debilitating political impasse that began with accusations that she conspired with an election commissioner and military commanders to rig the 2004 election that she won by a million votes.

Rep. Rufino Biazon claimed that Mrs. Arroyo risked destroying democratic institutions like the House, the elections commission and the military to conceal the truth and shield herself from impeachment.

"In her maneuvering to escape accountability, in her efforts to obstruct the opening of the boxes of evidence... the damage to the institutions of Philippine society has been almost irreparable," he said.

Opposition legislators conceded that they did not have the numbers to send the case for trial by the Senate but pleaded to be allowed to present seven boxes of evidence.

"It has been shown that the impeachment process is simply politics and a numbers game... and not a search for truth and accountability," said opposition Rep. Erin Tañada. "That will be written in the tombstone of the impeachment complaint."

Taguig-Pateros Rep. Allan Peter Cayetano, one of those who led the impeachment bid, said the opposition had not decided whether to try again next year, conceding Mrs. Arroyo had too much support in the House.

"We have always accepted defeat, but it’s the consequence of that that we are worried about," he said, adding that he feared anti-Arroyo groups may be forced to hold huge street protests.

The Constitution bars more than one impeachment complaint against the same official in a year.

House Minority Leader Francis Escudero said he was saddened by the defeat and said he was not sure whether they would try again next year for a third time.

"They voted to protect the President, their party leader, and not because our complaint lacked substance," he told reporters.

Dinky Soliman, Mrs. Arroyo’s estranged former social welfare secretary, said she and her colleagues were "extremely disappointed that the President and her allies suppressed the truth again."

"We will pursue this process wherever it takes us, including the streets. Definitely, we will pursue it next year here in this chamber," she said.

Sen. Edgardo Angara summed up yesterday’s proceedings: "Whoever has the numbers naturally will triumph and that’s exactly what happened. It’s expected and predictable." — With Aurea Calica, Christina Mendez, Sandy Araneta, Evelyn Macairan, AFP, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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