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Palace, Senate not budging in standoff

Malacañang and the Senate have dug in their heels in their respective positions over President Arroyo’s order barring members of the executive branch from appearing in congressional inquiries without her approval.

Senators lashed back at Mrs. Arroyo yesterday for calling the Senate a kangaroo court seeking to destabilize her administration by abusing its investigative powers under the guise of legislative hearings.

Malacañang, on the other hand, ruled out a dialogue with the Senate at this time until the chamber releases National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, who was ordered detained by the Blue Ribbon Committee last Sept. 21 for refusing to answer senators’ questions on the government’s contract with American lobby firm Venable LLP.

Some legislators and various sectors called for an end to the political bickering and suggested that a dialogue be conducted between the Palace and the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said efforts are underway to prevent the war of words from escalating. He did not elaborate.

Pimentel, an arch critic of Mrs. Arroyo, said the Senate could not just do away with congressional inquiries without being accused of abandoning its constitutional duty to protect the public interest.

"The Senate is pursuing these investigations on behalf of the people," he maintained.

Last Thursday, Mrs. Arroyo issued Executive Order No. 464 barring executive officials and military and police officers from appearing in congressional inquiries without prior clearance from Malacañang.

Her order was necessary, she said, to "prevent such inquiries in aid of legislation from being used for partisan political purposes."

Her directive is expected to be challenged before the Supreme Court. Lawmakers call it unconstitutional because it effectively clips Congress’ oversight powers.

Pimentel said the Senate would continue to assert its oversight powers: "The Senate will not be affected by any executive order. We will continue inviting government officials."

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said "truth, and not politics, is the driving force behind the Senate’s continued efforts to look into the lying, cheating and stealing by President Arroyo in last year’s elections."

"The Senate does not engage in politics of insults. It is only after the truth. It becomes insulting to Mrs. Arroyo only because it is true that she cheated, stole and lied. And the truth really hurts," Lacson said in a statement.

Lacson added the issuance of the EO is an indication that Mrs. Arroyo is "in cover-up and survival mode."

Sen. Jamby Madrigal said Mrs. Arroyo’s "kangaroo court" accusations against the Senate were "malicious, unfair and seeks to undermine the institution which she was a former member of."

"Public interest demands that the Senate conducts its work without fear or favor. Mrs. Arroyo, as a former senator herself, should not taunt the Senate. This is an exercise of the politics of survival and destruction," she said in a press release that her office entitled "Who Is The Kangaroo?"

Pimentel hinted that officials who refuse congressional summons would face a contempt citation and be ordered detained.

Last week, National Security Adviser Gonzales was ordered detained after he was cited for contempt for stonewalling the Senate Blue Ribbon committee during questioning over the government’s contract with Venable LLP.

Sen. Joker Arroyo, the Blue Ribbon panel chairman, earlier rejected requests for Gonzales’ release, saying he would remain in Senate custody at the Philippine Heart Center in Quezon City — where Gonzales is being treated for a heart problem — until he answers their questions on the contract.

Asked to comment on the political crisis, former President Fidel Ramos said the Arroyo administration was making mistakes in handling the situation but remained supportive of Mrs. Arroyo.

Without naming Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, Ramos particularly criticized his statements deriding the anti-Arroyo sentiments espoused by retired military generals.

"That government official who called the generals feeble and senile should not have done so. They should take their words back and apologize," the former Armed Forces chief said.

"I would like to suggest to (President Arroyo) to take more effective efforts to unite the country. She’s taking too long already. She had five years of being president and still society is more divided than ever," he said in an interview.

However, Ramos made it clear that Mrs. Arroyo enjoys his full support. "I will be the first to oppose any attempt to topple the government."

Cold Shoulder

Despite the widening rift between Malacañang and the Senate, efforts are underway to prevent the situation from becoming a full-blown constitutional crisis, Pimentel said.

However, Malacañang remained cool, maintaining that the Palace did not start the legislative gridlock but was only crying foul over the congressional investigations.

The Senate inquiries are meant to help legislators craft laws, but Bunye said recent inquiries were "in aid of destabilization."

Presidential political adviser Gabriel Claudio said it would be hard to deal with the Senate after it ignored their appeal for Gonzales’ release for humanitarian and medical reasons.

Doctors earlier said Gonzales would require heart bypass surgery soon because of clogged arteries.

"How can we be talking about dialogue when a member of the Cabinet is still under detention? They will have our full support when it comes to the Senate’s exercise of legitimate functions in actual legislation," Claudio told the STAR.

Anti-Arroyo lawmakers "should stay away and refrain from using the processes of legislation to malign, abuse or destabilize the government and instead concentrate on legislation."

"We want to see first the sincerity and determination to desist from using the halls of Congress to further certain ends and agenda. It will help if they can address our existing appeal regarding the detention of Secretary Gonzales," Claudio insisted.

Malacañang earlier defended Gonzales’ reticence during questioning, saying his answering could compromise national security.

Gonzales was ordered detained after he failed to answer questions on who authorized him to sign the Venable contract. He also refused to publicly identify donors who reportedly paid for the $1-million contract.

Claudio warned the situation could deteriorate into a constitutional crisis "if they insist on using legislative processes to destabilize the government."

He denied opposition allegations that EO 464 was meant to block Congress from looking into administration wrongdoing, pointing out that several officials were made available last Friday to attend two Senate hearings on three bills.

"We have no intention to abuse the executive order so there will be no gridlock as far as legitimate legislation is concerned. But if it is to bring down the government, we will not stand for it anymore," Claudio said.

Malacañang is counting on lawmakers’ earlier commitment to pass the administration’s 2006 budget within the year and thresh out other important bills as well.

"If all the Senate is doing is fulfilling (a hidden agenda), it’s up to them. On our part, we have clearly identified the priority measures needed to be passed," Claudio said.

Last Friday, Bunye accused Senate President Franklin Drilon of plotting Mrs. Arroyo’s ouster through a series of congressional investigations purportedly to unmask corruption.

For several months, senators have been probing allegations that Mrs. Arroyo’s husband, son and brother-in-law received payoffs from illegal gambling operators. This week, it opened another investigation into wiretapped recordings allegedly detailing Mrs. Arroyo’s efforts to rig last year’s polls with an elections commissioner.

The recordings, which emerged in June, served as a basis for an opposition bid to impeach Mrs. Arroyo in the House of Representatives on charges of electoral fraud, bribery, corruption and other allegations.

But the House, dominated by pro-Arroyo lawmakers, threw out the impeachment charges last month, and opposition leaders vowed to expose evidence of her alleged wrongdoing through Senate investigations.

On Thursday, the Senate added another investigation to its roster, this time over a contract for a China-funded railway project being pushed by Arroyo but which the opposition claims is illegal.

"The purpose of these investigations is to weaken the president and eventually to oust her, and part of this plot is no less than Senate President Franklin Drilon," Bunye said. — With reports from Perseus Echeminada, Rainier Allan Ronda, AP

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