By Mario Casayuran and Ben Rosario
New officials of both houses of Congress were elected Monday at the opening of the first regular session of the 18th Congress.
Senator Vicente C. Sotto III was re-elected Senate President, while Taguig-Pateros Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano was elected new House Speaker.
Sotto, a ranking member of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), garnered 19 votes.
Also re-elected were Senator Ralph G. Recto of the Nacionalista Party (NP) as Senate President Pro Tempore, while Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri retained his post as Senate Majority Leader.
Senator Franklin M. Drilon of the Liberal Party (LP), a former Senate President and former Justice secretary, was again voted as Senate Minority Leader.
Cayetano, President Duterte’s choice for speaker in the first 15 months of the 18th Congress, got 266 out of the 300 possible votes in a two-way speakership contest on Monday.
Comebacking Manila Rep. Bienvenido Abante, a Christian bishop, received 28 votes, and is expected to become the minority leader once the non-Cayetano voters affirm his leadership of the recognized opposition bloc.
Eleven House Deputy Speakers, who solidly rallied behind the election of House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, were also named on Monday.
Davao City Rep. Paolo “Pulong” Duterte, President Duterte’s eldest son, was first on the list of deputy speakers who were elected.
Of the 11 elected deputy speakers of the 18th Congress, three lawmaker – South Cotabato Rep. Ferdinand Hernandez, Sorsogon Rep. Evelina Escudero, and Surigao del Sur Rep. Prospero Pichay Jr. – retained the same posts in the 17th Congress.
Cayetano’s former colleague in the Senate, Antique Rep. Loren Legarda, was also got a deputy speakership post. She expressed all-out support to Cayetano’s leadership.
Camarines Sur Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte , ABONO partylist Rep. Conrad Estrella III, Pampanga Rep. Aurelio Gonzales, and Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny Pimentel were also elected deputy speakers.
Citizens Battle against Corruption (CIBAC) partylist Rep. Eduardo Villanueva, Jesus is Lord (JIL) founder, and Antipolo City Rep. Roberto Puno, who served as Antipolo City first district representative from 2007 to 2016, also bagged the same post.
In the previous 17th Congress, there were 12 deputy speakers.
The House plenary session also named Davao City Rep. Isidro Ungab as chairman of the influential House Committee on Appropriations, and Cavite Rep. Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino, eldest brother of Senator Francis Tolentino, as chairman of the House Committee on Accounts.
Ungab chaired the House Committee on Appropriations in the 16th Congress. He also previously headed the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means.
There are 60 standing House committees and 15 special panels.
There were no fireworks leading to Cayetano’s election after Rep. Duterte rose to be the first of three House members to nominate the come-backing Metro Manila lawmaker for speaker.
An outspoken critic of the term-sharing scheme for speakership that was endorsed by his father, the young Duterte was reported to be planning to block Cayetano’s bid to become speaker by nominating another candidate for the post.
But the plan fizzled out after the newly elected Davao City lawmaker met with Cayetano over the weekend to settle the issue.
Cayetano later announced that Rep. Duterte agreed to help him and had accepted his offer to become Deputy Speaker for Political Affairs, a new position.
In his nomination speech, Rep. Duterte first manifested that he was against the term-sharing agreement brokered by his father.
“Mr. Presiding officer, before I make a nomination, I would like to manifest a problem. That the term-sharing agreement, one between Congressmen Cayetano, Romualdez, Velasco and the President, I am against any term-sharing agreement. However, if the Speaker resigns after 15 months, then we will have to elect a new Speaker,” he said.
“Mr. Speaker, I nominate a leader who understands local and national problems, one who can bridge the different branches of government, one who can deeply and seriously represent the House of Representatives and the Philippines in the international arena.
Mr. Speaker, I nominate the distinguished gentleman from the district of … Taguig-Pateros Alan Peter Cayetano,” Rep. Duterte said to loud applause from the plenary.
Also rising to nominate Cayetano were Reps. Lord Allan Velasco (PDP-Laban, Marinduque) and Martin Romualdez (Lakas-CMD, Leyte) who both withdrew their respective bids for speaker in deference to President Duterte’s recommendation.
Following tradition, neophyte Iloilo Rep. Braeden John Biron, the Benjamin of the Lower House at 25, administered the oath to Cayetano.
The speaker’s wife, Taguig Rep. Lani Cayetano, stood by as he was sworn in as House leader. Also tasked to stand as witnesses were Reps. Michael Romero (1Pacman Partylist), Romualdez, and Velasco.
Rep. Villanueva, an evangelist and newly elected CIBAC party-list congressman, prayed over Cayetano, before the speaker ascended the rostrum to begin his term.
As announced by President Duterte two weeks before Monday opening of Congress, Cayetano and Velasco will serve as speaker under a 15-21 months term-sharing scheme.
The Makabayan bloc and the Liberal Party no longer fielded candidates as planned.
Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, who was supposed to be nominated, said the six solons representing the bloc agreed to join Abante’s bid to become minority leader with the condition that its party-list members will retain their freedom to pursue their respective advocacies, mostly critical of the Duterte administration.
Rep. Christopher Belmonte (LP, Quezon City) said eight members of the 18-man LP bloc supported Abante to establish a formidable and independent opposition force in the Lower House.
Reps. Lito Atienza (Buhay Partylist); Manuel Cabochan (Magdalo Partylist), and Edcel Lagman (LP, Albay) abstained from voting.
Their decision makes them independent members of the Lower House.
“I cast a “no vote” for Speaker because I have opted to remain with the independent opposition.
Moreover, both candidates for Speaker, including the projected runner-up and presumptive minority leader, are the identical sides of the same supermajority coin,” stated Lagman.
A total 297 out of the 305 elected district and party-list congressmen responded to the roll call at the opening of the first regular session of the 18th Congress yesterday morning.
Acting Secretary General Roberto Maling presided over the session then designated former Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Raneo Abu to act as the majority leader.
In his acceptance speech, Cayetano spoke of God and religion while vowing to lead the Lower House in not only seeking “to win the campaign against drugs, crime, and corruption” but also to “destroy and win the battle against poverty and other things that are killing the Filipino people.”
“The House of Representatives, the House of the People are partners with the Duterte administration,” Cayetano stated.
“We are partners in pursuing a better life for all Filipinos, whether we talk about teachers, about senior citizens, about young people, OFWs, professionals, our teachers, government workers, workers in the private sectors, or out-of-school youth, rich or poor, young or old, of whatever persuasion, of whatever religion. We are all connected and united,” he said.
The new House leader said: “Regardless of our religious belief, of our personal circumstances the verse I started with is actually a guide and a fundamental truth. In layman’s terms, it’s very simple when we say seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, we are saying, gawin natin kung ano ang tama, let us do what is right.”
At the Senate, senators also elected lawyer Myra Villarica as Senate Secretary and Retired Air Force General Rene Samonte as the new Senate Sergeant-At-Arms.
Sotto, the 23rd and current Senate President, administered the oath of office to the 12 newly elected senators who joined the 12 incumbent senators to form the Upper Chamber of the 18th Congress.
The new senators are Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go (PDP-Laban), Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa (PDP-Laban), Francis Tolentino (PDP-Laban), and Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” R. Marcos (NP).
Joining them are returning Senators Pilar Juliana “Pia” S. Cayetano (NP), Emmanuel “Lito” Lapid (NPC), and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. (Lakas-Christian-Muslim Democrats).
The re-elected Senators are Cynthia Villar (NP), Maria Lourdes “Nancy” Binay (UNA), Juan Edgardo “Sonny” M. Angara (Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino), Mary Grace Poe (Independent) and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, president of the PDP-Laban.
The incumbent senators of the 18th Congress are Sotto, Recto, Zubiri, Drilon, Richard Gordon, Emmanuel “Manny” D. Pacquiao, Panfilo Lacson, Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, Ana Theresia “Risa” Hontiveros, Sherwin Gatchalian, Joel Villanueva, and Leila de Lima.
Sotto said the matter of organizing the Senate committees may take them the entire session days on July 23 and 24.
Earlier, he said that 90 percent of the Senate committee chairmanships have already been assigned. The remaining panels would be decided by the senators at a caucus this week. (With reports from Charissa L. Atienza, Vanne P. Terrazola, Hannah L. Torregoza, and PNA)