Seatmates bloc

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Sen. Joseph Victor Ejercito calls it the “Seatmates bloc” – also the “Magic 7” – and he maintains it’s solid.

The bloc includes ousted Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri and the six senators identified with him: Sonny Angara, Nancy Binay, Ejercito, Sherwin Gatchalian, Loren Legarda and Joel Villanueva.

Those who can’t make heads or tails of what happened this week at the Senate, and who think the line between the Senate majority and minority blocs has nearly disappeared, may take heart in the possibility that the Seatmates might become part of the minority, currently consisting of Risa Hontiveros and Koko Pimentel.

Because of the presence of Gatchalian and Legarda at the Malacañang dinner hosted by President Marcos and wife Liza shortly after the Senate leadership change, there’s speculation that the Solid 7 could dwindle to just the Solid 5.

Together with Hontiveros and Pimentel, however, that will make seven – still a significant bloc, accounting for nearly a third of the membership in a 24-member chamber.

Ejercito clarified to “Storycon” on One News yesterday that being part of the minority does not necessarily mean being part of the political opposition.

But he did admit that he “really felt bad” over the ouster of Zubiri as Senate chief, which also meant the replacement of the other key officials of the chamber. Ejercito stepped down as deputy majority leader.

“I admit I was really hurt because I know for a fact that we didn’t do anything wrong,” Ejercito said.

*      *      *

In a change of leadership in Congress, those who don’t support the new leader are usually counted among the minority. So far, this isn’t happening in the Senate.

Are we just being persnickety about this, or is it a symptom of rot in our political system? A strong opposition, or minority, or non-administration political voice is needed for a healthy democracy and good governance.

It’s bad enough that our political party system is a farce, with no group standing for any particular ideology or position on controversial issues. Party switching or butterfly politics is the rule rather than the exception, with politicians flitting from one party to the other, whichever is in power.

During elections, we have multiple parties using their machineries to raise funds, with strong candidates being “adopted” or supported by more than one party.

After elections, only two parties are left: the winner and the loser. Nearly everyone – especially in Congress – jumps to the winning camp. The majority in the House of Representatives has become progressively larger as this practice becomes institutionalized – growing from the “majority” to the “super majority” to the current “super super majority” where even the minority is actually part of the majority bloc.

In the latest Senate leadership change, Ejercito, Legarda and Gatchalian belong to the Nationalist People’s Coalition. But so do new Senate President Francis Escudero and majority member Lito Lapid.

Senators will probably argue that it doesn’t matter since they all behave like independent republics anyway, voting on issues based on their personal beliefs or friendships rather than along party lines.

*      *      *

Delivering his swan song as Senate chief last Monday, Zubiri had thanked his colleagues who didn’t sign the document for his ouster (or so he thought). He named them one by one, led by Ronald dela Rosa who seemed beside himself with grief, along with Angara, a tearful Binay, Ejercito, Gatchalian, Legarda and Villanueva.

It turned out (as Zubiri found out later that day) that Bato dela Rosa – whose committee’s probe on the “PDEA leaks” reportedly became the final straw for “the powers that be” – was the 15th senator to sign the document.

Gatchalian told reporters that he was never presented the document calling for Zubiri’s replacement. If Escudero did, would Gatchalian have signed it?

Ejercito told Storycon that the Seatmates had discussed whether they should attend the dinner at Malacañang. He said it was decided that Gatchalian and Legarda should attend, so their presence at the dinner doesn’t mean the end of the Seatmates.

“We are proud of this group,” Ejercito maintained. “We are a formidable force as long as we remain united.”

The chorus at the Senate these days is that it’s time to move on, and that Senate leaders serve at the pleasure of their colleagues.

Oh, but people thought congressional leaders serve at the pleasure of Malacañang, whose current occupant has a special sensitivity to accusations of substance abuse.

Escudero, who said he instigated the coup that installed him as Senate chief, stressed that the Palace dinner invitations were sent three weeks ago. He had missed the first two such dinners, he said, so he accepted the third invite.

Ejercito confirmed to Storycon that the dinner invitations were sent three weeks ago. He didn’t attend, he explained, because “it will be awkward” to engage in small talk so soon at a party with the people who kicked you out of your post.

“Mahirap namang makipag-plastikan,”  he said.

At the start of the interview, he pointed out that the Seatmates “were the workhorses of the Senate… I was the first in, last out on the floor… I really loved this job.”

He estimates that the Seatmates bloc accounted for about 80 percent of what the Senate produced in the past two years.

“Is this the price we have to pay for working with the administration?” Ejercito asked as he maintained that “there were external forces that moved for the leadership change.”

Escudero has issued a blanket apology to those he might have hurt in the course of the Senate coup.

While hurting, Ejercito stressed that even if the Seatmates decide to join the minority, they will not necessarily be anti-administration.

“We won’t be obstructionists,” Ejercito vowed. “We will become fiscalizers.”

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