NOVEMBER 9, 2006 (STAR) Malacañang expressed belief yesterday that support for Charter change through constituent assembly could snowball in Congress, although the House of Representatives will have to work hard to get Senate participation in the process.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita also said the administration fully support the constituent assembly for as long as time would permit.

But Ermita admitted that though they were still optimistic about Charter change, the administration coalition has decided to put a deadline on moves to amend the 1987 Constitution because of the May 2007 elections.

Ermita said it would be best to prepare for elections by December if the House fails to convene into a constituent assembly before its Christmas break "rather than depend on something that is still very uncertain."

But Bunye said "Charter change is supported by a broad range of leaders in Congress and backed by active constituencies" and that "it will be pursued with unsullied fervor by the administration in the most expeditious means under the rule of law."

Ermita said it was highly probable for a constituent assembly to gain the backing of more senators – especially after Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile filed a resolution seeking to convene Congress into a constituent assembly.

He said a "lively debate" on the issue started between Enrile and members of the House over the manner of voting on the amendments to the Constitution during the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC).

"They were debating whether the voting should be done separately or jointly. So we, the non-lawyers, were just listening," he said.

Ermita said Senate support for a constituent assembly was highlighted because of the fact that any move of the House without the concurrence of the Senate may end up being elevated to the Supreme Court, as in the case of the people’s initiative.

The SC has junked the people’s initiative as a means to amend the Constitution.

"So they (House members) have to work hard to beat the deadline," Ermita said. "If you were the one in the lower house, of course you will strive to push and achieve your objective."

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles said the senators’ votes are only needed by their counterparts in the House in legislative functions and not for efforts to rewrite the Constitution and shift to a unicameral Congress with a parliamentary government.

"Proposing amendments to the Constitution is not a legislative function. In legislation, yes, it is very clear that we have to vote separately. But in constitutional duties, we can vote jointly," Nograles said.

To make his argument clearer, he likened their constitutional function to that when the President declares martial law, where both houses of Congress – the Senate and the House – are directed to immediately convene as one body.

"We can debate about this the whole day. We need a referee to determine who is correct and who is not," Nograles said, conceding that the crucial issue of joint or separate voting will definitely reach the SC.

The position taken by Nograles, which may reflect the sentiments of the majority bloc congressmen, might only worsen the widening rift between senators and congressmen, who have been at loggerheads over how to effect Charter change.

Senators, mostly from the opposition, said the House cannot go it alone when it wants to convene Congress into a constituent assembly because the Constitution provides that it must have the approval of three-fourths of the legislature and that both chambers of Congress should vote separately.

Proponents of Charter amendments led by Speaker Jose de Venecia disagree with the Senate position, saying that all the Congress needs is compliance from even a few senators – not all members of the 24-man chamber. The House has 232 members.

A member of the House opposition, Iloilo Rep. Rolex Suplico, laughed off Nograles’ statement: "We just cannot send an invitation to the Senate RSVP. The House will have to dance the cha-cha with the Senate."

The Visayan lawmaker, along with Reps. Ronaldo Zamora, Gilbert Remulla and Agapito Aquino, is pushing the constitutional convention mode of Charter change. — Aurea Calica and Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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