MANILA, FEBRUARY 10, 2007 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - President Arroyo asked Congress yesterday to hold a special session from Feb. 19 to 20 to pass vital legislation, including the anti-terrorism bill.

Mrs. Arroyo said "it would be a pity" if these proposed measures would remain pending for months since Congress would resume session on June 4 after adjourning last Thursday.

Congress adjourned Thursday with the House unable to ratify the anti-terrorism bill due to lack of a quorum.

The bill needs ratification by both the Senate and House of Representatives before it can be submitted for the signature of President Arroyo, who has certified the bill as urgent.

Speaker Jose de Venecia had earlier asked the President to call a special session of four to five days to approve eight priority bills that were not acted upon by Congress during the last session day. Mrs. Arroyo decided on a two-day special session.

"It will be difficult (for us to muster a quorum) but we must," De Venecia told reporters in a briefing at his residence in Forbes Park in Makati City.

He appealed to congressmen and senators to participate in the special session even as they become busy with the May 14 polls. The campaign period for senatorial candidates will start on Feb. 13.

"We are appealing to our senators. These eight bills are so crucial and critical to the nation. It is very important that these bills are approved. These are long awaited by Filipinos," De Venecia stressed.

One important measure is the anti-terrorism bill, which has been ratified by the Senate, but still needs to be ratified by the House.

Among the eight priority bills he mentioned were the measures on tax amnesty, tourism, cheaper medicines, planting of one billion trees, Political Party Act, rationalization of tax incentives, bill for special economic zones and Human Rights Compensation bill.

Without categorically saying that the Senate has been sitting on the measures they have transmitted, De Venecia told reporters that the House has turned over "more than 1,000 bills while the Senate has approved 35 bills" in the 13th Congress.

Aside from the anti-terrorism bill, Mrs. Arroyo wants the ratification of a law that would set up a centralized credit information bureau to make it easy to distinguish between delinquent and faithful borrowers.

She said this is very important because it would cut the red tape in the borrowing process.

"With the credit information bureau, they can only log on the computer and find out how your track record is. The small enterprises complained a lot. There’s money available (for lending)," Mrs. Arroyo said.

"That’s one example of the bills that are almost there but if we start again from scratch in the next session, what a pity. All that we’ve worked for in the last two years would have gone to waste," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo said most of the priority bills of the administration were already up for ratification.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said the anti-terrorism bill was not ratified on Thursday in the House of Representatives because of the lack of quorum before Congress adjourned and thus the need for the special session.

"I guess that (special session) will prevent a waste of time because if these are not acted upon during this special session, then we’ll have to go back to square one," Bunye said.

Presidential Political Adviser Gabriel Claudio said the bill on half-priced medicines should also be passed as soon as possible for the benefit of the people.

Newly appointed presidential chief of staff Joey Salceda disclosed others in the priority list were the bills involving the Office of the Solicitor General and the Public Attorney’s Office.

Bunye said the special session would not be difficult to convene even if most lawmakers are already campaigning for the May 14 elections since "many of them (bills) are in the ratification stage."

"They have already gone through the bicameral conference committee and what is important is the final stage of ratification by the House of Representatives and the Senate," Bunye said.

He expressed optimism that Congress leaders would be able to muster the necessary quorum to be able to do their job during the special session.

"We’re appreciative of that fact that many of the important bills were passed during the 13th Congress. I guess it’s only a question of two days, it’s 19th and the 20th (of February) and instead of tackling that after the recess, it’s better to finish everything during the special session," Bunye said.

Salceda said the momentum for the passage of these important bills might already be lost in June.

"The atmosphere might be tense already. Some may have lost already, there will be protests and the dynamics will already be different. At this point, both houses (of Congress) had been accommodative to the position of (one another)," Salceda said.

Senators, however, are split over the decision of the President to convene Congress for a special session on Feb. 19 to 20 to act on the bills pending at the Senate and House, including the anti-terrorism bill otherwise known as the Human Security Act of 2007.

While Senate Majority Leader Francis Pangilinan agreed to hold the special session, Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. questioned the motives of Speaker De Venecia in proposing it.

"OK lang para maipasa ang ilang mga pending bills na nabitin nung nag adjourn dahil walang quorum sa House," Pangilinan said.

For his part, Pimentel expressed apprehension that the special session might just be used by the Speaker to push his own agenda.

"JDV’s (Joe de Venecia) call for special session is out of place. Now, he wants money for 10 billion trees. If granted, even the birds and trees will vote for administration bets in May. How sad that money-making is now the administration’s name of the game," Pimentel said.

Sen. Richard Gordon said he is in favor of the special session so Congress can ratify the tourism bill.

Gordon had been disappointed over the lack of quorum at the House, which delayed the ratification of important bills.

"Tonight, I was told that the tourism bill will not be passed in the House of Representatives unless the party reform bill was also passed. I am shocked beyond belief that people called me to tell me that they will hold back a bill this important to force another (bill) to be passed. We do not hold hostage the lives of millions of people," Gordon said.

He was angry over what he described as political horse-trading at the House.

"Is the tourism bill so unimportant that we take it hostage in a political horse-trading? The tourism bill is dedicated to people who have no opportunities in life. People laden with poverty are the ones being crushed," Gordon said.

Despite long hours spent in deliberation and amendments, the Senate passed on third and final reading last Thursday the tourism bill sponsored by Gordon.

The bill aims to take up three fundamental reforms in the tourism sector to uplift the standards of tourism services, aggressively promote tourism and develop existing and new tourism destinations in the Philippines.

In his speech, Gordon decried the poor political tactics of the people in Congress by stressing that the tourism bill has received support from both the local and international community.

"I am a transparent person. I always have been. All my life, I have tried to implement reforms. I am not made to accept things as they are, I want to see things as they should be. I stand tonight here before you to put on record that we must always remember that our people depend on us. They need our support, our leadership. Today, I bow my head, for we have failed the Filipino people yet again," Gordon said.

House Majority Leader Prospero Nograles expressed confidence that they will have a quorum next Monday.

"We could muster the quorum needed. Anyway, the last day for the filing of candidacy in the local level is on the last week of March. I think we still have time," Nograles said.

Agusan del Sur Rep. Rodolfo Plaza expressed doubts on the Senate’s participation, since many of them are seeking re-election in the May 14 polls, and that the campaign period is just days away.

Plaza told newsmen that senators may not be able to muster a quorum. And if this happens, the purpose of the special session will just be put to naught. "I doubt if there will be a quorum in the Senate. Otherwise, nothing will happen." - Christina Mendez, Delon Porcalla

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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