By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

THE SENATE is focusing on the approval of several priority measures and international agreements including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) within the next three weeks before Congress goes on a break on Feb. 4 for the upcoming elections.

Congress resumes session on Monday, with the Senate still yet to approve at least 12 bills that have already been passed on final reading by the House of Representatives.

“We urge the Senate to expedite the deliberations and approval of these measures so we can pass them into law before the campaign period,” House Speaker Lord Allan Jay Q. Velasco said in a statement.

Mr. Velasco said these measures include the Internet Transactions Act, and the Government Financial Institutions Unified Initiatives to Distressed Enterprises (GUIDE) Act.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said there will be a caucus to determine the chamber’s priorities on Monday.

“To be practical about it, these three weeks are really risky for major contentious bills,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino via Viber.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon said Congress should “not allow election fever get in the way of legislation.” The national and local elections are scheduled to be held on May 9.

Senator Mary Grace Natividad S. Poe-Llamanzares, who chairs the Public Services Committee, in a Viber message to BusinessWorld, said the Senate has been able to pass “almost all of its priority bills, so now all that is left to do is to ratify the bicameral versions.”

“On my end, we are due to ratify the consolidated version of the Public Service Act (PSA) Amendments, SIM Card Registration Act, and the National Transportation Safety Board,” she said.

The amendments to the PSA would allow 100% foreign ownership in telecommunications, air carriers, domestic shipping, railways and subways, and canals and irrigation.

Despite the objections to the PSA bill, Ms. Poe expects the Bicameral Conference Committee to come up with a final version within the week.

“Debates in the Senate were very extensive. We agree on many provisions passed by the House. Knowing full well the importance of this bill, I am confident we can reach an agreement and have it ratified by both Houses before sessions adjourn in February,” she said.

Ms. Poe also expects the Senate to act swiftly on the remaining pandemic-related measures such as the vaccine passport program, the creation of a disease center, and the funding for allowances of healthcare workers.

Senator Aquilino Martin “Koko” dela L. Pimentel III, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, told BusinessWorld in a Viber message that the Senate has to tackle three treaties — the RCEP, Treaty to Reduce Statelessness, and Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) — before the break.

Business groups have urged the Senate to give its concurrence to the ratification of the RCEP as soon as possible, warning that delays would risk the Philippines missing out on market opportunities.

The RCEP was ratified by President Rodrigo R. Duterte on Sept. 2, 2021, and is now pending in the Senate for concurrence. It took effect on Jan. 1, 2022 for 11 countries, namely: Brunei, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is expected to approve the proposed Rural Financial Inclusion and Literacy Act, and a measure amending the Omnibus Election Code that aims to strengthen the field offices of the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Mr. Velasco also said they will also try to finalize the Magna Carta for Barangay Health Workers, the National Housing Development Act and the bill that assigns health workers to every barangay in the Philippines.

“We only have three weeks or nine session days to finish some priority measures before we adjourn for the election period,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senator Ronald M. dela Rosa, who chairs the Public Order and Dangerous Drugs Committee, said he wants to see the passage of the following: Marawi Compensation bill, Philippine Center for Disease Control and Prevention bill, the Department of Disaster Resilience bill, the Private Security Services bill, and the COVID-19 Benefits for Health Workers Bill.

“The Expanded Solo Parents Welfare Act is a priority, and it looks like we will be able to pass this bill as we are routing the bicam report as we speak,” said Senator Ana Theresia N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, who chairs the Women, Children, Family Relations, and Gender Equality Committee, in a Viber message to BusinessWorld.

She also expressed hope the House of Representatives will also pass the Anti-Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children Law, which has been approved by the Senate.