Sotto retains Senate presidency

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 22) — Senator Vicente "Tito" Sotto kept his post as Senate President on Monday.

During the opening of the 18th Congress, lawmakers voted viva voce to support his continuing leadership in the Senate. Senator Leila De Lima remains in detention for drug-related charges, while Senator Manny Pacquiao is still recovering from yesterday's boxing match in Las Vegas, leaving 22 members present.

Sotto had faced the threat of being replaced by Senator Cynthia Villar over disagreements on committee chairmanships.

No changes

Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri nominated Sotto during the inaugural session on Monday morning, held hours ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA). "I believe he is the best man for the job... He is a man of great intellect and great humor, knowing just how to break the tension during heated debates," Zubiri said of Sotto in his nomination speech.

Sotto thanked his colleagues for the fresh mandate, but reminded them during his acceptance speech that future Senate inquiries should remain in aid of legislation: "We are primarily legislators, we are not judges. Our hearings are known to be precursors of heart attacks — it should not be that way."

Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson administered Sotto's oath of office. Senator Ralph Recto was named as Senate President Pro Tempore, while Zubiri has been chosen as Majority Leader. Meanwhile, Drilon retains his seat as Minority Leader by the four-member bloc.

Sotto took the top seat in May 2018 after his predecessor, Senate President Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, stepped down by virtue of a resolution he signed with 15 other lawmakers. Before this, Sotto was Majority Floor Leader since the 15th Congress.

Lawyer Myra Marie Villarica also took her oath as Senate secretary. Meanwhile, Retired Maj. Gen. Edgardo Rene Samonte has been elected as Senate Sergeant-at-Arms after the passing of Gen. Jose Balajadia. For the 18th Congress, it was Lacson who crafted a resolution among their colleagues to keep Sotto in the post, an idea which he attributed to boxing-champ-turned Senator Pacquiao.

Priority measures

Sotto said the second tax reform package and amendments to the Human Security Act to curb terrorist acts will be among the bills to be prioritized by the chamber over the next three years.

"I think Sen. Pia Cayetano, who will be chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, will be able to sift through the rubble. There are very important provisions in TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) 2, I'm very supportive in the lowering of income tax of SMEs (small and medium-scale enterprises). We will definitely prioritize debates and discussions on the proposed tax reform part two," Sotto told CNN Philippines in an interview after the morning session.

READ: Dominguez ‘very confident’ 18th Congress will approve more tax reform bills

Proposed by the Department of Finance, the Tax Reform for Attracting Better and Higher Quality Opportunities (TRABAHO) bill seeks to gradually lower corporate income tax rates from 30 percent to 20 percent, but will remove some tax breaks given to companies. This is meant to improve the country's allure as an investment destination, although some business groups warned that this could scare away foreigners for changing the investment rules mid-game.

On federalism, Sotto added that the proposed change in government structure will be handled by the Committee on Constitutional Amendments, but clarified that legislators need to resolve first whether the Senate and House will vote separately, and whether the changes will be drafted through a Constitutional Convention or Constitutional Assembly.

READ: Tax reform, federalism seen clearing Duterte-allied Senate

Sotto earlier revealed that among his Sotto's pet bills for the new Congress is the revival of death penalty for high-level drug trafficking and possibly for heinous crimes. The Senate leader said he wants to hear this during President Rodrigo Duterte's fourth SONA, with focus on reducing the demand for illegal substances: "The day we stop buying (drugs) is the day they stop selling."

Sotto also wants updates on the government's "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure program, as the President enters the midpoint of his six-year term.

The Senate President pledged that the chamber will remain "cooperative but independent" on proposals put forward by the Executive, given that majority of its members are Duterte allies.

READ: Rubber stamps? Duterte allies promise Senate independence

"Once you are elected nationwide, you tend to be independent-minded. We can be sure that even the President's men who are with us will be independent-minded also," Sotto said.

Eight of the 12 new senators, which include former police chief Ronald "Bato" Dela Rosa and special assistant Christopher "Bong" Go, were endorsed by Duterte during the May 13 polls.