Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The contentious reproductive health (RH) bill of the Philippines is taking its toll on personal relationships in the Senate, and the ill feelings may result in the ouster of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile early next year.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a cosponsor of the RH bill, disclosed on Friday that Enrile, who opposes the measure, had ordered his staff to return the Christmas gift she had sent to him.
Santiago said Enrile also returned the Christmas gift sent to him by Sen. Pia Cayetano, a cosponsor of the bill.
"Too bad, I'm giving away gold bars to the senators this Christmas," Santiago told the Inquirer, laughing.
Turning serious, Santiago said she expected Enrile to lose the Senate presidency either in January or February because of his opposition to the RH bill, which President Benigno Aquino III has certified as urgent.
"I think that is highly likely," Santiago said.
She said she had sources among her colleagues, including Enrile's foe, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, and she had learned from Palace insiders that Malacanang - the Philippine Palace - had observed Enrile's opposition to administration measures such as the sin tax bill and the RH bill.
"From Trillanes alone I gather that the Philippine Palace has already been giving careful attention to these political contretemps, meaning to say it's against the flow of this present administration," Santiago said.
"My more serious comment is it's very petty and infantile. It is a tradition. Every Christmas in every Congress the senators exchange presents among themselves, usually local food products from their hometowns," Santiago said.
The Inquirer tried to reach Enrile for comment, but his staff said he was under the weather.
Santiago tried to make light of the matter but she sounded more hurt as she proceeded to tell her story.
"It's just meant to affirm bonding and comradeship and this is the first time, I believe, that anybody in the Philippine Senate has returned some other senators' presents," she said.
"It's a box of Panaderia de Molo biscuits. It's a well-known [coming home present] at our airports and other stores in the city. And I have a present from Pia, which I presume she gave to other senators, I think it's also food. So normally it's just little food. Cookie jars that we give to each other," she added.
Santiago said Enrile's returning her and Cayetano's gifts was "meant to inflict pain."
"It's just common ethical conduct. No matter how heated the debates in the Senate is, you are supposed to be above it all and at heart remain as legislators united in our love of country regardless of our different views on how to express that love of country, that patriotism," Santiago said.
Santiago said she and Enrile go a long way back, as she worked for him when he was secretary of justice. She said Enrile was also one of the principal sponsors at her wedding.
"In Filipino culture, refusing to accept an innocuous and traditional gift is, in the vocabulary of international law, an act of aggression. However, in the spirit of Christmas, I prefer to look at it as an old man being crotchety," Santiago said.
Santiago said there was no law that required senators to accept harmless gifts, but under the Senate rules, specifically Rule 34, Section 93, acts that offend senators are deemed unparliamentary.
She added that under Section 97, upon recommendation of the Committee on Ethics and Privileges, the Senate may punish any member for disorderly behaviour.
"It would be demeaning for me to take official notice of a boorish act. If Senator Enrile wants to play Scrooge, I shall be happy to play Tinker Bell. Ho-ho-ho!" Santiago said.
"What struck them most was a statement by Enrile at some point during the RH deliberations. [He said] "I don't care what happens. I'm going to oppose this bill." Because they were hoping that they could, over the course of time, in a certain manner, persuade Enrile to soften his stand. But he became a hard-liner," she said.
Santiago said Trillanes and a few other senators who were close to the administration were not her only sources.
"But in addition, I have talked to certain VIPs in Malacanang and they have repeated the same sentiments to me that Malacanang is very concerned.
"The Malacanang people have been discussing this in their political dialogues among themselves," Santiago said.
Further quoting her sources in the political grapevine, "which is now on steroids," Santiago said Senate President Pro Tempore Jinggoy Estrada and Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III were also in danger of being removed.
"They have defied administration priorities in at least two governance-changing initiatives: the decades-long sin tax bill, and the equally hoary reproductive health bill," she said.
"Their death-defying political recalcitrance has placed their heads on the chopping blocks for certain reasons," she said.
Santiago cited four reasons: Enrile's failure to get his colleagues on his side in opposing the sin tax and RH bills; his leading the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), which is putting up candidates who will run against President Aquino's handpicked senatorial candidates; the February-May campaign for next year's midterm elections; and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas' expected rivalry with Vice President Jejomar Binay for the presidency in 2016.
"It is the [Liberal Party] coalition that controls the Senate majority. Enrile by himself has no majority support," Santiago said.
"It is illogical for Enrile to remain as Senate president, while campaigning for the opposition," she said.
"The problem is made more acute, because his son (Cagayan Rep. Jack Enrile) is running as an opposition candidate for senator," she added.
Enrile is one of the top leaders of the UNA, which is fielding the only other strong senatorial slate against President Aquino's Liberal Party-led administration coalition.
'He belongs to opposition'
"In the first place he belongs to the opposition political group. He does not belong to the administration. And then that impression ... is further maximised by the fact that he has gone against the President's wishes," Santiago said.
Enrile owes his Senate presidency to "a complex negotiation process that took place among the members of the Liberal Party after [President Aquino] was elected," she said.
"He does not have his own independent support group within the Senate," she added.
Santiago said that if Enrile's leadership was the President's choice after a political negotiation, "it is a given that he should support all administration initiatives."
"He has not done that," she said.
She recalled that the Senate-House conference report on the sin tax bill narrowly passed on a 10-9 vote.
"So you know he was keeping President Aquino on tenterhooks there. And any President will resent that, especially if that President was instrumental or pivotal in the selection of that Senate president," Santiago said.
Sen. Franklin Drilon, a senior member of both the Senate and the Liberal Party, said he had heard enough talk of a coup against Enrile.
"I'm not interested. I am not aware of any," Drilon said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a supporter of the RH bill and a close ally of President Aquino's, said the RH bill is not reason enough for a change in the leadership.
"We respect each other's stand on certain issues no matter how Malacanang wants it pushed. I don't think that the passage of the RH bill is such a major issue to necessitate a change of leadership," Lacson said in a text message to the Inquirer.
"It goes without saying that the impeachment of Chief Justice [Renato] Corona was a different matter altogether. Of course, this is a personal opinion that may not apply to some of my colleagues," he added.
Sen. Ralph Recto, a Liberal and at one time rumoured to be among those being considered to replace Enrile, declined to comment on the Senate president losing his post because of the RH bill.
"I cannot answer that question. I wouldn't know. I don't know if people are conspiring. I wouldn't know," Recto said in a telephone interview.
In a text message a few weeks back when Catholic bishops asked for prayers for Enrile supposedly because he's about to be ousted due to his opposition to the bill, Liberal Sen. Francis Pangilinan said, "No such thing as far as I'm concerned."
Around the same time, Sotto said he'd probably be the last to know if a leadership change was brewing because of his closeness to Enrile.
"If there is such a move, I will be the last person to know. If they oust him, they do not have to remove me because I will gladly resign," Sotto said in a text message then.
Enrile has repeatedly said that his position depends on the support of his colleagues in the Senate.
"I'm at the disposal of my peers. As I've said, I have no torrens title [to] the position of Senate president. But at anytime, one like me could lose a seat if [my] peers do not agree with [me] and they have the numbers to unseat [me]," Enrile told reporters when asked if he thought his opposition to the RH bill could lead to his ouster.
"I never imagined that I will be supported by my peers in all the issues and I also hope that they will respect my position as I will respect their position," Enrile added.
Santiago said the sin tax and the RH bill could be put aside since the former had been passed while the latter "[seemed] headed for victory."
"What we are now facing with the start of the new year is the campaign period, which now assumes much more importance since it was kept simmering in the back burner for a while," Santiago said.
"How can the President allow a Senate president to belong to the opposite party and work for the victory of the enemies of the President's candidates? It is not congruent with all principles of leadership," she said.
Santiago said President Aquino was expected to prefer "a more or less homogenous group."
"If the President gives a word, they become his marching orders and everyone is expected to fall in line. That is in so far as President Aquino is concerned," Santiago said.
Beyond 2013, there will be rivalry between Roxas of the ruling Liberal Party and Binay, leader of the PDP-Laban.
While Roxas belongs to President Aquino's party, Binay is an ally of Enrile's in the UNA-a coalition of Binay's PDP-Laban and former President Joseph Estrada's Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP).
"We all know that [Roxas] is gunning for the presidency in 2016 and that his fittest competitor would be Vice President Binay. So here is Roxas with the President's party, the Liberal Party, as against Binay in the other opposition group together with Enrile," Santiago said.
"How can they allow the continued reign of Enrile as Senate president with all the resources at the command of the Senate president, who is working for, in effect... the political enemy. It becomes untenable," she said.
"This is going to make for a tension-filled Christmas, but I guess it will have to be resolved before the Senate breaks by about the end of February," she said.