Only twelve lawmakers showed up at the special session at the Senate on Monday, as some of their colleagues were still in self-quarantine protocols amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis.
As of Monday morning, only Senate President Vicente Sotto III, Acting Senate Majority Leader Sherwin Gatchalian, Senators Pia Cayetano, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, Panfilo Lacson, Lito Lapid, Manny Pacquiao, Grace Poe, Ralph Recto, Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., Francis Tolentino, and Dick Gordon answered the roll call.
However, Sotto said 12 senators already constituted a quorum.
A special session was being held at the Senate to pass Senate Bill No. 1413 which seeks to declare the existence of a national emergency and authorize President Rodrigo Duterte to exercise powers necessary as the country faces the COVID-19 threats.
Lacson said that the number of senators would present would suffice, since he said detained Senator Leila De Lima was currently “out of jurisdiction” of the Senate.
Senator Nancy Binay, who earlier tested negative for the virus, said she had to extend her isolation period.
“Much as I wanted to participate in today’s Special Session, I am still on an extended quarantine period given the fact that I have been exposed twice to persons who have been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus,” Binay said in a statement.
“Having a pre-existing condition, I have been advised to avoid being exposed, as much as I do not wish to risk the health of my colleagues,” she added.
Binay was monitoring the session online and said she would gladly participate through the use of modern technology should it be allowed.
Senator Imee Marcos was also absent at the special session because she has cough and has not been given clearance by her doctor to attend.
Marcos forwarded her proposed amendments to the bill that is being discussed by her fellow lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon and the rest of the minority bloc were also absent.
Drilon denied it was a boycott and that they only had to complete their respective periods of quarantine.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian was designated as Acting Senate Majority Leader during the special session because coronavirus-positive Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri was not present.
Drilon said the minority bloc did not boycott the special session which seeks to tackle a bill that would authorize President Rodrigo Duterte to realign budget in addressing the COVID-19 situation in the country.
“The absence of the Minority Bloc in the special session is not, [I] repeat, not a boycott. We are on a 14-day self-quarantine as we were exposed on March 11 to Sen. Migz Zubiri, who was tested positive,” Drilon said in a message to reporters.
“Moreover, because of my age (and a pace-maker to regulate my heartbeat), I am a high risk person who must take extra precaution,” he added.
Drilon said the minority bloc requested to join the special session through teleconferencing but was told by Senate President Vicente Sotto III that such facility is not available.
In a separate statement, minority bloc member Senator Risa Hontiveros said Malacanang does not need additional powers to effectively respond to COVID-19.
“Our existing laws already grant government the powers and other necessary tools needed to mount an effective response against COVID-19,” she said.
Hontiveros instead pushed for the passage of a supplemental budget.
The senator, nonetheless, clarified the reason for her absence in the session. “I am strictly following health protocols set by the DOH and am currently still under self-quarantine set to end by March 25,” Hontiveros said.
Senator Francis Pangilinan also expressed that he was absent because he is still under self-quarantine after experiencing dry cough.
“I am, however, in direct communication with a number of colleagues who in turn are in communication with senators in attendance so that we may introduce through them our proposed amendments,” he said in a separate message.
Meanwhile, detained Senator Leila De Lima, also a member of the minority bloc, said granting extraordinary powers to Duterte to deal with the COVID-19 crisis is “unconstitutional, unnecessary, and dangerous.”
“The Constitution prohibits Congress from passing a law authorizing the transfer of appropriations… What the Constitutions prohibits is the realignment of funds already provided for in an appropriation law,” De Lima said in a statement.
“The solution therefore is to enact a special appropriation law or supplemental budget to the GAA of 2020,” she added.
Sotto, nevertheless, earlier said the budget for the COVID-19 response will not be from the 2020 national budget.
“Ang pondong gagamitin, hindi manggagaling sa GAA ng 2020, manggagaling sa mga GOCCs. In other words, off-budget, kaya wala dapat kabahan,” he said.
House of Representatives
Meanwhile, the House Committee of the Whole on Monday approved the measure granting Duterte emergency powers to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) situation in the country.
Voting “ayes” and “nays,” the Committee of the Whole approved House Bill 6616, which seeks to declare a national emergency amid the threat of COVID-19 and authorizes the President to exercise powers in dealing with the health situation “for a limited time and subject to restrictions.”
One of these powers include the authority to “direct the operation of privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, hotels, and other similar establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, quarantine centers, medical relief and aid distribution locations, or other temporary medical facilities.”
It also allows the President to direct the operation of public transportation systems to carry health, emergency and frontline personnel, and other persons.
The measure also allows Duterte to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation” in the 2020 national budget “for whatever purpose the President may deem necessary” to combat the spread of COVID-19, and cancel appropriated programs, projects, and activities to generate savings.
The measure stressed the urgent need to minimize transmission of COVID-19, mobilize assistance to affected individuals, and provide healthcare and treatment to patients.
“By reason thereof, and in order to optimize the efforts of the President to carry out the tasks needed to implement the aforementioned policy, it is imperative to grant him emergency powers subject to limitations,” it read.
The House constituted itself into a Committee of the Whole as a first step in deliberating on the measure, presided by Majority Leader Martin Romualdez.
According to the House rules, when the chamber constitutes into a Committee of the Whole, “it functions as one committee acting upon a bill or resolution, and conducting its proceedings like a regular committee with its membership composed of all the Members of the House.”
The approval of the measure by the Committee on the Whole will allow the House to have a working draft of the bill to be deliberated in the plenary for second and third reading.
Following the approval by the Committee on the Whole, the House will approve the measure on second and third reading./Stacy Ang