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Apr 17, 2016 11:00 PM

Brazil lower house OKs impeaching president, sends to Senate

The Associated Press

BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) Brazil's lower house of Congress voted late Sunday to impeach President Dilma Rousseff, delivering a major blow to a long-embattled leader who repeatedly argued that the push against her was a "coup."

Rousseff is accused of using accounting tricks in managing the federal budget to maintain spending and shore up support. She has said previous presidents used similar maneuvers and stressed that she has not been charged with any crimes or implicated in any corruption scandals.

However, she failed to secure the support she needed, and more than the necessary two-thirds of lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies voted to oust her.

"What an honor destiny has reserved for me!" shouted Bruno Araujo, a member of Socialist Democratic Party, upon making the decisive "yes" vote. Both cheers and boos erupted as Araujo waved his arm in the air.

With at least 342 of 513 deputies voting in favor, the measure passed. Several lawmakers had yet to vote, so the final tally could be an even wider victory for the opposition.

The measure now goes to the Senate. If by a simple majority the Senate votes to take it up and put the president on trial, Rousseff will be temporarily suspended.

In that case, Vice President Michel Temer would take on the presidential duties and the Senate would have 180 days to conduct a trial against Rousseff. Senate leader Renan Calheiros has suggested his body would consider the measure within a month, but no date has been set.

Rousseff has options. She could appeal to the Supreme Federal Tribunal, Brazil's highest court, on the grounds that the accusations are faulty. She has hinted she might do so.

She could also heavily lobby senators and at the same time use the union muscle of her Worker's Party to bring thousands to the streets to pressure the Congress.

"This is just beginning," said Jose Guimaraes, who is a member of the Worker's Party. "It's going to be a slow and gradual war that we'll undertake."

The lower chamber's decision was the culmination of months of fighting that brought to the surface deep polarization that goes to the heart of daily life Brazil. Impeachment proponents said Rousseff's budget moves hurt Latin America's largest economy by hiding deficits and allowing overspending that contributed to its worst recession since the 1930s.

They argued the only way to move beyond the paralysis is to remove Rousseff, the country's first female president, whose popularity ratings have dropped below 10 percent in recent months.

Government supporters said something much more nefarious was at play: Elites angry about the hold on power of the Worker's Party the last 13 years saw an opportunity to snatch it back. They repeatedly pointed out, as did Rousseff herself, that some of the biggest proponents of impeachment are facing serious allegations of corruption.

Watchdog groups and political analysts often cite a jaw-dropping tally: About 60 percent of the 594 members of Congress are facing corruption and other charges.

The deepening crisis comes as Brazil grapples with problems on multiple fronts. The economy is contracting, inflation is around 10 percent and an outbreak of the Zika virus, which can cause devastating birth defects, has ravaged parts of northeastern states. Rio de Janeiro is gearing up to host the Olympics in August, but sharp budget cuts have fueled worries about whether the country will be ready.

Just below the surface throughout the debates in the Chamber of Deputies was the "Car Wash" investigation, a probe into a kickback scheme so vast that dozens of top politicians and businessmen have already been jailed.

While Rousseff herself has not been implicated, the kickbacks at state oil company Petrobras allegedly happened on her watch and that of former President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva. While many lawmakers and regular citizens blame her for letting the graft happen, many sitting lawmakers are accused in the scandal.

Simone Morgado, a member of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement, said impeachment proponents were trying to derail a democratically elected president.

"Given that Dilma didn't commit any crime, like so many others in this chamber, which has no shame, I'm voting 'no!'," she said during the voting, which saw the legislators cast their ballots one by one.

Temer, a 75-year-old with the Brazilian Democratic Movement, a party without any concrete ideology that has a reputation for backroom wheeling and dealing, has tried to cast himself as a statesman above the fray and a unifying force that can heal a scarred nation. Rousseff has called him one of the ring-leaders trying to bring her down.

Temer has been linked to the Petrobras scandal. Also, because he signed off on some of the questioned accounting maneuvers, he could later potentially face impeachment proceedings.

The second in line to replace Rousseff is Eduardo Cunha, the Chamber of Deputies speaker and long-time Rousseff enemy. He is facing money laundering and other charges for allegedly accepting some $5 million in kickbacks in connection with the Petrobras scheme and could also be stripped of office over allegations he lied when he told a congressional committee he didn't hold any foreign bank accounts. Documents later emerged linking him and his family to Swiss bank accounts.

Under the special legal status afforded to Brazilian legislators and other top politicians, they must be tried by the Supreme Court, largely shielding them from prosecutions.

Political analysts say another big factor in the impeachment push was Rousseff's inability to wheel and deal. The hand-picked successor of Silva, a once wildly popular leader, Rousseff had never held elective office before the presidency and was frequently out-maneuvered by Cunha and other opponents.

Critics said she comes off as stand-offish and arrogant, and her unwillingness to engage in back-slapping and wooing of opposition leaders cost her as the economy started to decline and she was unable to gather support for reforms.

"Impeachment is the way that the political system found to get rid of an incompetent leader," said Luciano Dias, a political consultant based in Brasilia.


Associated Press writer Jenny Barchfield reported this story in Brasilia and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Rio de Janeiro.


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