In a historic session, Congress met 'virtually' for the first time on Wednesday, as lawmaking restarted for the first time since Argentina entered a mandatory nationwide lockdown on March 20.
The Senate, led by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, began an online plenary session at 2pm local time on Wednesday, with many members joining the session online. Argentina's lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, followed suit a few hours later, under a similar format.
A giant screen mounted inside the Senate allowed members to connect remotely, later casting votes in electronic form after validating their identities.
Just four senators and two parliamentary secretaries joined Senate President Fernández de Kirchner in the chamber. A total of 71 of the 72 legislators participated remotely in the session (with Tucumán Senator José Alperovich, on leave over a sex scandal, the single absentee), the length of which had been capped beforehand at six hours.
In the Chamber of Deputies, 47 of the 257 lawmakers were in the house for debate, while 193 more deputies were connected remotely at the start of the session. But by the time a bill to exempt health sector workers and the security forces from income tax went to the House floor, it was approved by 252 deputies.
The first run was not without technical difficulties. The system went down at one point and everyone had to reconnect, while a failure in the remote voting system forced some members to vote out loud.
Despite the hitches there was general satisfaction among parliamentary authorities and legislators. Juntos por el Cambio caucus chief Mario Negri (Radical-Córdoba) even hailed the streamlined virtual format as an improvement on the stormy and endless debates of traditional procedure. Government whip Máximo Kirchner (Frente de Todos-Buenos Aires Province) was more sceptical, however. Government deputies, seeking to debate topics such as a trailed wealth tax, pushed for two sessions a week but the Juntos por el Cambio opposition held out for one.
Congress will continue along these lines while Argentina's quarantine restrictions remain in force. President Alberto Fernández ordered Argentines to remain in their homes on March 20 and the measure has been extended until May 24, with some workers gradually being allowed to return to their jobs.
The restrictions include the suspension of schools at all levels, limitations on the opening of industries and shops, except those considered essential, and the minimisation of the use of public transport services.
On Wednesday, the Senate debated around 20 emergency DNU decrees issued by President Fernández, most of them aid measures to alleviate the economic impact of the pandemic, totalling some 178 billion pesos. All but one (a March frontier closure also excluding Argentines which had already expired) were supported by the opposition.
Congress gave its constitutional endorsement to the decrees ordered by the government, which include the banning of foreigners and non-residents from entering Argentina.
In addition, it unanimously supported decrees that prohibit cutting the supply of essential services to citizens, a 180-day ban on the dismissal of workers and the government's move to pay up to half of April and May's salaries for private-sector workers.
In a Tuesday evening interview with C5N television news channel, President Fernández revealed that upcoming priorities for Congress would include judicial reform, the bill to legalise abortion and creation of a Socio-Economic Council, saying the packages for “ready.”
The next priority for the ruling Frente de Todos would be the bill for knowledge industries although deputies from the Kirchnerite wing also mentioned accelerating the wealth tax (the two FIT leftist deputies had already demanded debate on this tax during the Wednesday session).