Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte spent an “intimate” dinner with members of the Senate majority bloc on Tuesday evening, March 14 at Malacañang.
A photo posted by Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito on his social media accounts reveals the senators who attended the event, which include Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, and Majority Leader Vicente “Tito” Sotto III.
Apart from Ejercito, also present were Senators Alan Peter Cayetano, Manny Pacquiao, Richard Gordon, Sonny Angara, Nancy Binay, Sherwin Gatchalian, Loren Legarda, Grace Poe, Joel Villanueva, Cynthia Villar, and Juan Miguel Zubiri.
“Intimate dinner between President Duterte and my colleagues in the Senate. We discussed the proposed tax reform,” the photo caption read.
Meanwhile, the only three majority members who were not present in the picture were Senators Panfilo Lacson, Francis “Chiz” Escudero, and Gringo Honasan.
Also notably missing in the photo were the six members of minority bloc: Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, and Senators Francis Pangilinan, Bam Aquino, Risa Hontiveros, Antonio Trillanes IV and Leila De Lima.
De Lima, a vocal critic of Duterte, has been detained at Camp Crame since February 20 over drug charges.
In a statement, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella described the dinner as “private, lively, and productive.”
According to Abella, Duterte and the senators exchanged views on “vital legislative agenda currently pending in the Senate,” citing the proposed emergency powers to solve the traffic problem in Metro Manila during the meeting.
The officials also discussed the proposed comprehensive tax reform package, which “seeks to realign the revenue collection of the government, boost the available income of the taxpayers, while guaranteeing the healthy operation of the government and the country’s inclusive development programs.”
“They likewise talked about the president’s war on drugs and the Senate concurrence to the Philippines’ accession to the Paris Agreement,” Abella added. “In all, it was a productive evening.”
During the dinner, Duterte also sought the senators’ support, according to Zubiri.
“He asked us to support him. I’d like to put that clear. I know the attitude of the president. He never asks for favors, help. In this particular dinner, he basically mentioned ‘give me some time to clean up the problem of peace and order and the economy, and basically the projects he’s trying to push,” Zubiri told reporters on Wednesday, March 15.
Asked why Duterte was seeking their support, Zubiri responded: “So many people are asking him to resign. So many people are asking him to stand down. So many people are asking to promote destabilization. What he’s saying is: let me do my job.”
At the same time, Ejercito and Poe denied that the dinner was a form of a “loyalty check.”
Sharing the same sentiments with Ejercito, Sotto said: “It was just a fellowship dinner, socials, nothing official, we did not talk about anything official.”
“There were no serious discussions. We spoke about many issues in passing. No agreements were made. We joked around. It was very informal. My impression is it was all about camaraderie,” Recto told Inquirer.
On the other hand, without specifying, Gatchalian told GMA News that they “discussed vital legislation that we need to pass once we get back from the Senate.”
Presently, the bill, which seeks the reimposition of capital punishment in the country, is pending before the Senate. During the presidential campaign, Duterte vowed that the death penalty would be restored.
While Ejercito denied that the death penalty was discussed during the meeting, Recto said the issue was brought up.
“Yes, briefly. And we all know his position with or without (the dinner),” Recto replied when asked if capital was mentioned. “He (Duterte) did not even say it directly. He only expressed his position.