Sotto: Congress eyeing special session this Saturday to pass ₱54B budget for COVID-19 response

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The Senate plenary hall (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 20) — Congress is geared to convene a special session this Saturday to pass a ₱54-billion budget for the country's response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Senate President Tito Sotto said.

Lawmakers are only waiting for President Rodrigo Duterte's letter of request to formalize his plea, which was announced Thursday night by Malacañang.

"I have the assurance of both the majority and minority group that most of them, if not all of them, will be attending kung ico-convene ko bukas. Oras na lang ang pinag-uusapan, ang sulat na lang ng Pangulo ang hinihintay ko [We're just waiting for the letter from the President so we can set the time]," Sotto told CNN Philippines' Pinky Webb.

Sotto added that he made the request for the President to call for the convening of a special session through Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III. He said his counterpart, House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, is also ready to do the session via teleconferencing, as some members have already returned to their home provinces.

House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez earlier said plans are will take into account "social distancing" protocol to prevent the spread of the virus. Two employees from the House Printing Office have tested positive for COVID-19, with the first patient succumbing to the disease.

Congress has been on a break since March 13 and will reopen May 4.

Sotto said funds are readily available, but would need special authority from Congress — which has the sole power to allocate where government money is spent — to be used for COVID-19 response and relief efforts.

"Right now, ang nakikita namin is a bill or a law that will allow the President to realign and to use the unused funds na available sa gobyerno ngayon, na ibigay ng cash diretso sa mga kababayan natin strictly for the COVID-19 crisis," Sotto said.

Sotto said there is ₱18 billion unreleased for unconditional cash transfers under the 2019 budget and ₱36 billion in the current spending plan which could be used to test patients, contain the spread of the disease, and compensate displaced workers.

READ: House panel OKs ₱1.65-billion fund to fight coronavirus disease

He clarified that he personally wants government to distribute cash rather than food packs, as the latter would take longer to procure and deliver. Sotto added that the House and Senate should pass the same version of the bill to fast-track its approval.

Sotto said he needs to receive a formal letter from the President this Friday for the Saturday session to proceed.

​A House body passed a ₱1.65-billion spending plan to augment funds of the Department of Health for additional equipment and testing kits, but this still needs to go through two more plenary approvals and then tackled and approved by Senate before it is ready for signing into law.

The economic team has revealed a ₱27.1-billion spending plan for the government's COVID-19 response, with half set aside to assist the badly-hit tourism sector. Some ₱3.1 billion has been allotted for protective gear for health workers and additional test kits, while the rest are cash aid for displaced workers. Economists said this was not enough to prop up economic growth this quarter, as both consumer spending and business investments have slumped due to the Luzon-wide community quarantine which keeps most people at home.

There are now 230 cases of COVID-19 in the country as of March 20. Of them, 18 died and eight have recovered.