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Lawmakers keen on special session for more virus response funding

Several senators on Friday expressed willingness to meet with their House counterparts to craft a stimulus package and bankroll the government’s surging expenses in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But Sen. Sonny Angara said President Duterte should immediately issue a certification for Congress to act on the passage of a new law after Republic Act No. 11469, also known as Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, expired when Congress adjourned on June 5.

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Angara pointed out that the Senate had actually approved on second reading the proposed measure replacing the special law, but Malacañang did not certify its passage as urgent.

“Without any certification of urgency, there can be no legislative action until after the President’s Sona (State of the Nation Address scheduled on July 27),” he added.

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Angara, who defended the special spending bill during the marathon Senate deliberations as finance committee chair, said the senators had agreed to lower the financial package to P140 billion “as requested” by the Department of Finance.

DOH leadership

“[We did it] with the understanding that another form of stimulus [package] might be passed later on should [the government] finances improve,” he said.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said while he would also support the move, it would be best for officials in the executive branch to meet with congressional leaders to arrive at a “mutually acceptable legislative measure.”

“That way, we won’t be wasting our time,” Lacson said in a Viber message.

But he also stressed [the] need [to] install a new leadership in the Department of Health (DOH) after Health Secretary Francisco Duque III had been besieged with allegations of irregularities, and is now the subject of an investigaton by the Office of the Ombudsman.

“As long as the DOH is incompetently led and the health issue cannot be addressed appropriately, we will be in a Sisyphus-like situation and worse, just wasting our country’s very limited resources that could bring us neck-deep in debt with no solution in sight,” Lacson said.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian also supported the holding of a special congressional session.

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Coordination with DOF

“We would only like to request that the executive department, particularly the finance team, [let us] know what they want and coordinate with [Congress] to come up with a doable compromise so they won’t waste the President’s time and effort in calling for a special session,” Zubiri said.

At the House, Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said there was no date set for the special session but he expected President Duterte to call one “very soon.”

“Hopefully, next week, or the week after, depending on the schedule provided to us by the Palace,” the Taguig lawmaker told reporters.

Cayetano said the House of Representatives and the Senate were coordinating separately with the Department of Finance (DOF) in drafting a mutually agreeable version of the bill.

Acting as a committee of the whole, congressmen passed House Bill No. 6593, their version of the follow-up law to Bayanihan, on first reading on June 3, but they did not have time for plenary debates before the adjournment of session on June 5.

The House bill proposed a P162-billion standby fund to “support operations and response measures” to COVID-19.

Nearly a third of the fund, or P50 billion, would go to capital infusion to government financial institutions for credit guarantees and low-interest loans for affected industries, among others.

Testing kits, etc.

The bill also allocates P12 billion for the procurement of materials for coronavirus testing kits, P18 billion for cash-for-work programs, and P21 billion for involuntary separation assistance for laid-off workers.

Cayetano suggested that there was still much work to be done to finalize the actual figures, but that the final version would definitely include loans for micro, small and medium enterprises, as well as provisions for the procurement of medical supplies and testing kits.

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TAGS: coronavirus Philippines, COVID-19 Philippines, health crisis, lockdown, pandemic, Quarantine, senators, stimulus package
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