On the part of the Senate: Closing time at the 15th Congress

By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan

ABS-CBN video monitor showing scenes at the Senate during Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile's speech resigning the Senate Presidency. (Shot June 5, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

The last stretch of regular sessions at the Philippine Congress each year are  largely unremarkable. Even their schedule is nondescript–two weekdays snuck in at the end of summer vacation. And every three years, it comes just after the winners of the incoming Congress have been proclaimed.

This routine resumption avails little for the news media attuned more to clashes, exposés and sensational investigations. But it was different when the Senate briefly returned to session on June 5, 2013.

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile opened the plenary with a privilege speech blasting the critics among his colleagues, ruing over his son Jack’s failed Senate run, and finally, tendering his resignation as Senate President. He then left the session hall, no longer to return till the next Congress.

Broadcast outlets, some of whom got wind of Enrile’s apparent bombshell a day before, came early that day to set up control booths for airing the speech live.

What Enrile would say was expected to be hot copy after days of news about the impending change of the guard in the Senate once the administration-heavy lineup of winning solons took their seats in July.

Few foreknew that he would resign.

Before the session began, a Senate staff member expressed hopes that the speech would avoid controversy. It would only divert attention—and precious time—from the pile of last-minute legislative work.

The speech indeed did its work, and the session was paralyzed for the rest of the day. Yet not all of Enrile’s opponents were present to hear his attacks.

Sen. Franklin Drilon making a phone call at the Senate floor after Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile walks out folllowing his resignation as Senate President (Shot June 5, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Drilon making a call after the walkout. (Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

A TV news producer got the text and scanned it quickly, circling any references to other senators. He then told the live feed director near him whose reaction to show next: Senators Antonio Trillanes, Pia Cayetano, or Franklin Drilon. The two men, seated apart, were caught smiling during key points in the speech.

Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who engaged Enrile in a personal debate months back, only showed up after Enrile walked out.

* * *

While anchors and pundits parsed the rudiments of Enrile’s valedictory speech in its aftermath, the senators left behind quickly moved to fill Enrile’s vacancy.

A quick check of the Senate rule book said the next in line was the Senate President Pro Tempore– Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who was currently presiding.

Senator Drilon declared for the record that Estrada was now the acting Senate President. It negated some thoughts that an election would happen then. Even then, there was hardly a quorum to call a vote.

Philippine Senators discuss during a session suspension after Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile resigns the Senate Presidency and walks out. (Shot June 5, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

Sen. Joker Arroyo, whose final term was ending, took the floor.

“Mister President, are you happy?” he asked Estrada. The chamber echoed with laughs.

“Do I have to respond to your question, Senator Arroyo?”

“You see, I could sense that while the Senate President grieved, you couldn’t control your (Estrada: ‘Emotions?’) …happiness.”

Arroyo noted that of the Senate’s big three—Enrile, Majority Floor Leader Vicente Sotto III, and Estrada—only Estrada was “happy”.

Estrada rebutted: “I would like to make it clear that I am open to elect a new senate president even right now.”

“Oh yes. And then, what does Senator-elect Joker–JV Ejercito say on that?”

“Let us get his reaction on July 22, Senator.”

“Do you think he will ever become Senate President–even in acting capacity?”

More laughs.

“Well it is up to the members of the Senate to decide on the matter.”

Drilon asked Arroyo if he had talked to Estrada’s half-brother. Yes, he said. How did their conversation go?

“(I) said, ‘Jinggoy is already Senate President,’ and he said, ‘O di ano? (So what?)’”

Drilon and the viewers again laughed.

Sotto said: “Mr. President, these are the issues and the  statements that we will miss in the 16th Congress. (Arroyo) wants to avail of these last two days to be able to do that, because he will not be able to speak about you and your brother in the 16th Congress.”

Senators Jinggoy Estrada, Franklin Drilon and TG Guingona laugh at Sen. Joker Arroyo's questions to Estrada, the acting Senate President after Enrile resigns. (Shots courtesy of ABS-CBN News)

A light moment after the heated speech, care of Joker Arroyo (Shots courtesy of ABS-CBN News)

Arroyo went back to Estrada: “This is your day, Mister President, and congratulations. Nobody has congratulated you.”

Did Arroyo want to deliver a farewell address? Sen. Edgardo Angara, who was also leaving, was slated to give his parting speech later.

“I think I would leave it at that. Since you cannot suppress your happiness, then let it stay that way.”

Laughs. Would he run again for the Senate?

“No more. That’s it.”

* * *

The final plenary session on June 6 started late. The mill of parliamentary duties that was the Senate’s real work continued.

With Senator Estrada on the president’s seat, Senator Sotto moved for the approval of past session journals, moved that they dispense reading them, and then moved on to the next item.

Sotto would name Senate Bill or Resolution number so-and-so and move that they be approved for the current stage of reading. Usually Estrada did not get any objections and bang the approving gavel. Sotto then asked the secretary on duty to read the title for the record.

For the occasional bill, the senators suspended the session for a closed-door caucus where they took a vote.

There was hardly news in the routine, but the Senate reporters still packed the press office that evening, waiting for one development.

Earlier on the floor as TV cameras strained to shoot him from the sidelines, Sotto told reporters he planned to follow Enrile in resigning as majority floor leader.

Senate reporters interview Sen. Vicente  "Tito"Sotto III as he announces he would resign his post as Majority Floor Leader (Shot June 5, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

He was already tired, he said. He had lost the will to continue the post. And doing so would ease the work of the incoming Senate in choosing its next officers.

But first he had a job to finish. After more than two hours, the Senate had approved the creation of a barangay in Mindoro, the building of fish ports, and a bill against animal cruelty, among others. That’s after it had passed a Food Safety Act, an Anti-Bullying Act, and added noodles and water to the Price Act the day before.

Sotto finally asked permission to read a brief of his accomplishments as majority leader.

The Senate had passed landmark laws Sotto was infamously identified with, like the Anti-Cybercrime Law, and others he vehemently opposed, like the Reproductive Health Law. They had impeached a Chief Justice. On top of it, Sotto registered a perfect plenary attendance in the past three years.

“As the curtain falls on the regular session of the 15th Congress and its legal life draws its last breath at the end of June this year, please consider my position as majority leader coterminous therewith,” he said.

Sotto briefly moved to other unfinished journal approvals, and then initiated the procedure for adjourning the 15th Congress—“on the part of the Senate,” a staff reminded him to add.

With three bangs of the gavel, the last presiding officer Sen. Gringo Honasan adjourned sine die (meaning “with no appointed date of resumption”).

Senate staff pose with outgoing Senators Joker Arroyo and Francis Pangilinan after their last day in the 15th Congress. (Shot June 6, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

As the applause died and the few staff members returned to their offices, the Senate reporters flocked to Sotto. They wanted to clarify his seemingly ambiguous speech.

For Sotto, it was as clear a resignation as it got. And irrevocable at that.

Meanwhile, some staff members and press people approached Senators Arroyo and Francis Pangilinan for pictures. The curtain was closing for them along with Senators Angara, Panfilo Lacson, and Manny Villar.

After each picture was taken, Pangilinan politely tried to take leave, but a new one asked for another pose, to which he acquiesced.

Soon, the entire media pack halted their newsgathering duties and requested one group shot with the Arroyo, the last solon to leave the floor.

Senate reporters pose for a picture with outgoing Senator Joker Arroyo on his last day. (Shot June 6, 2013 by Anjo Bagaoisan)

(Shot by Anjo Bagaoisan)

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