Senate drafts resolution to shift to virtual sessions as legislature's 'new normal' during COVID-19 crisis

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2020 02:38 PM


MANILA - Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri on Friday said a resolution seeking to allow the Senate to convene and hold sessions via teleconferencing is being prepared as the chamber prepares to operate under a "new normal" during the coronavirus crisis.

The resolution is expected to be "routed" to all senators "for comments and amendments" by tomorrow, Zubiri told reporters in a text message.

"We need to operate with a skeletal staff for all offices as we don’t want to put our employees at risk... We don’t want to also put our Senators at unnecessary risk as we have members that have underlying medical conditions," he said.

"While we await a vaccine for this deadly virus and the spread of this disease continues, this may be the new normal for the meantime," said Zubiri, who recently recovered from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The proporal to move sessions to a virtual platform also takes into consideration the health and means of transportation of Senate employees, many of whom are senior citizens, the Majority Leader said.

"There is no public transport and 80 percent of the 3,000 employees of the Senate use public transport. Therefore, [they] have no means of going to work every day," Zubiri said.

"The last thing we want to do is expose our members, staff and Secretariat personnel in the legislature and make it spread like wildfire towards the communities where they live," he said.

'ZOOM-LIKE CONFERENCES'

Should the resolution for teleconferencing sessions be approved, the Senate will "tweak" its video equipment to "set up Zoom-like conferences" with senators and the chamber's secretariat, Zubiri said.

"Everything would be strictly recorded and would be considered as part of our Senate data and archives," he said.

Under Senate rules, at least 12 senators must be physically present in the session hall before a quorum can be declared. 

Senators may have to physically attend the opening session on May 4 to vote on the resolution to amend the rules, as well as to pass a separate measure seeking to honor the late Sen. Heherson Alvarez, who died due to COVID-19, Zubiri said.

Sen. Sonny Angara earlier said that there was "strong opinion" among senators to hold virtual sessions in lieu of physical ones to avoid the possible spread of COVID-19 in the Senate.

Three senators- Angara, Zubiri and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III - earlier contracted the virus. Angara and Zubiri have recovered, while Pimentel continues to wait for the results of a test that would confirm that he has also recovered from the virus.

Three other staff members affiliated with the offices of senators Pia Cayetano and Ramon "Bong" Revilla Jr. also got sick with COVID-19, with one of them succumbing to the disease.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III earlier said that Senate sessions cannot be suspended as these are mandated under Congress' legislative calendar.

"As far as Congress is concerned, it does not matter. We have to convene... and I don't have to ask," Sotto said.

The Senate has yet to decide if media would be allowed to physically cover the opening session on May 4, he said.