Senate hearing to focus on gov’t vaccination program, says Sotto; senators assert independence in legislative duties

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said President Duterte may have been misinformed that members of his security group will be summoned to explain on the unregistered COVID-19 vaccines supposedly administered to them.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III (Joseph Vidal/Senate PRIB)

Sotto maintained on Tuesday that the Senate Committee of the Whole's January 11 hearing will be focusing on how the government will spend the P72.5-billion 2021 funds for the purchase and distribution of coronavirus vaccines for the country, and not the unauthorized inoculation of the Presidential Security Group (PSG), military, and other officials in the executive department.

"He is misinformed. I’m the Chairman of the Comm of the Whole as Senate President. The topic of my hearing is the roadmap for the P72.5 for vaccines," Sotto said in a text message sent to reporters.

"Who in heaven’s name told him I'm calling for the PSG? I think the President is being misled," he added.

Duterte on Monday warned Congress of a "little crisis" should Congress compel the PSG personnel to attend its inquiries and disclose details on their immunization against COVID-19 ahead of the Food and Drug Administration's approval of any vaccine.

"I would like to call on Congress na hindi naman ako nakikiusap. Ang ano ko lang diretso na salita na (I am not pleading, I’m just saying it clearly that) do not tinker with the PSG. I’m telling you as President it’s a matter of self-preservation…I will not elaborate on it but do not force my hand to meddle into this affair because maybe I will not – I am not so keen about allowing Durante and the rest of the PSG to testify,” he said in his televised address Monday night.

Duterte said he would also order the PSG to "just shut up" and invoke their right against self- incrimination.

Contrary to the President's belief, however, Sotto said he has no plans to call the PSG to the hearing.

"Ako (I am the) chairman. Wala akong binabago sa original na hearing intent (I have not changed the intent of the hearing). Bakit pinangungunahan nila ako (Why are they preempting us)?" Sotto said.

Senator Panfilo Lacson also lamented that the Senate inquiry is being dismissed as a hearing to only discuss PSG's vaccination.

"It is awful that the Senate hearing wants to focus on investigating the PSG personnel who allowed themselves to be inoculated instead of asking why we have no vaccines yet, unlike many other countries," he said on Twitter.

"Let’s ask again - who dropped the ball?" he further raised.

In an interview, Lacson said that while is it "more important" to focus on the government's immunization program, this does not mean that related issues will be set aside.

He said that Malacañang should likewise not meddle with the Senate's upcoming inquiry.

"Ibabalik natin sa Malacañang 'yong panghihimasok na issue (Let's throw the meddling issue back at Malacañang). Hindi na dapat manghimasok 'yong Malacañang sa tungkulin ng Senado o ng Kongreso na kung kami ay may pagdinig, uubra na kami ay magpatawag ng resource persons (Malacañang should not intervene with the Senate's or Congress' mandate to call for resource persons whenever we have a hearing)," Lacson told ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo.

"'Pag kami ay nagpatawag ng resource persons, hindi naman ibig sabihin na mga suspects 'yon, gusto lang natin maliwanagan at in aid of legislation (If we summon resource persons, that does not mean that those are suspects, we just wanted to be enlightened in aid of legislation)," he pointed out.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros said the Senate is an independent branch and "is well within our rights, lalo na sa ganyang hearing ng (especially in hearings like that of the) Committee on the Whole, to invite resource persons to shed light on the issues that we will be inquiring into or investigating."

"As usual, or typically, what we hear from the President every once in a while, premature naman 'yong ganyang babala. At kumbaga wala sa lugar ang ganyang pagsasabi sa hiwalay, separate, at co-equal branch of government na hindi namin pwede gawin ang trabaho namin," Hontiveros said in a separate interview in ANC.

"This is in aid of legislation after all," she stressed.

Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who initially called for the Senate inquiry, also said that it is up to senators whether or not to take up the PSG's vaccination in the hearing.

"'Yong sa usapin ng PSG, nasa mga senador na ito kung may tututok dito o hindi. Kung indikasyon ito ng magulo at kanya-kanyang kilos sa vaccine rollout, ligal man o hindi, ang mahalaga sa akin ay ano ang ibig sabihin nito sa usapin ng kung paano matitiyak na magiging maayos, patas, ligtas at epektibo ang vaccine rollout ng bansa at malaman kung handa ba talaga o hindi ang gobyerno dito," he said in a statement.

(On the issue with the PSG, it is up to senators if they would like to focus here or not. If this is an indication of a confusing and individualistic efforts on the vaccine rollout, legal or not, what's important is to make sure that the vaccine rollout in the country will be fair, safe and effective and whether or not the government is prepared for this.)

"Kung hindi pa handa at nagkakanya kanya at iba iba ang direksyon ng mga ahensya ng executive branch, responsibilidad at tungkulin ng Senado magsilbing check and balance at busisiin ito at subukan ilagay sa ayos ang anumang kakulangan o kapabayaan na nagaganap sa kilos ng mga kinaukulan," he added.

(It they are not yet ready and agencies in the executive branch have their respective directions, it is the responsibility and obligation of the Senate to serve as check and balance and look into it and attempt to address any shortcoming or negligence on the part of authorities.)