MANILA Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte could reappoint the environment minister who ordered more than half the country's mines shut down, as Congress appears set to defer a decision on her confirmation.
Duterte has backed a mining crackdown by Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Regina Lopez in the world's top supplier of nickel ore, which has angered miners who seek her removal for decisions they have said were baseless.
"Definitely she will be bypassed," Senator Manny Pacquiao, the head of the environment committee, told reporters on Thursday at the end of a two-day hearing on the confirmation of Lopez.
Bypassing Lopez means Congress is effectively deferring a decision on her appointment. Such a deferral allows Duterte either to reappoint her to his cabinet, or name someone else.
"She's leaving tomorrow for America and she can't attend next week so (she's) bypassed," Pacquiao said. "The president can just reappoint, and then that's it, it doesn't need to undergo public hearings."
Congress goes into recess from March 18 and will only resume sessions in May.
The committee meets again next Tuesday and a mining group hopes its members will be able to vote on Lopez's fate.
"We're really hoping they finally resolve this by Tuesday, and that they vote for rejection," Ronald Recidoro, an official of the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines, told Reuters.
If Lopez gets reappointed, "we have to fight her again," at another confirmation hearing, Recidoro added.
In the Philippines, confirmation hearings can take place long after ministers start work. On Wednesday, lawmakers decided to reject Perfecto Yasay as foreign minister, their first dismissal of a member of Duterte's cabinet.
Lopez's decision last month to shut or suspend 28 of 41 operating mines to protect watersheds has raised concerns of supply disruptions and boosted global nickel prices.
An environmental crusader, Lopez defended her actions before lawmakers, saying she was trying to protect the functions of watersheds, where many of the mines she ordered closed are located.
During a break from Thursday's session of nearly seven hours, Lopez said she believed she still had Duterte's support in case lawmakers deferred their vote on her appointment.
"The president said he had confidence in me and he would just reappoint (me)," Lopez said.
More than 20 people spoke against her confirmation since the hearings began on Wednesday, some attacking her lack of technical expertise on mining.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said he found Lopez's responses "wanting".
At the start of Thursday's hearing he told her, "Bear in mind that you are here to convince us. I don't want you to suffer the fate of Secretary Yasay."
Lopez said some of the 13 mines that passed the environment agency's months-long review were also in watershed zones, but had been allowed to stay open, for lack of a negative environmental impact.
Officials of mines in watershed areas ordered shut could seek reconsideration and she would look at such cases.
"I'm not going to do anything just to get appointed," she said. "I am not going to sacrifice my principles just to get appointed."
The closures would affect the livelihoods of 1.2 million people, the chamber of mines has warned.
"(Lopez's) extreme ideology and environmental fanaticism will only cause a mess that will hurt many and benefit no one," Recidoro told the hearing.
(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz and Manolo Serapio Jr.; Writing by Manolo Serapio Jr.; Editing by Richard Pullin and Clarence Fernandez)