CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela's congress, dominated by allies of President Hugo Chavez, gave initial approval Tuesday to constitutional reforms that could permit Venezuela's leftist leader to govern for decades to come.
After about six hours of debate, National Assembly president Cilia Flores said Chavez's proposed changes to the constitution, including the lifting of presidential term limits, received "majority approval."
Flores did not say how many of the 167 lawmakers voted in favor of the reforms, saying only that they were approved with overwhelming support. Final approval is expected within two or three months, and the changes would have to be approved by voters in a referendum.
The National Assembly has been solidly pro-Chavez since the opposition boycotted a 2005 vote and had been expected to sign off on the changes proposed by Chavez in Tuesday's first reading. The reforms, if approved, would extend presidential terms from six to seven years and allow Chavez to run again in 2013.
Government opponents have attacked the reforms, saying they will weaken democracy by permitting Chavez to become a lifelong leader like his ally Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Chavez, a former paratooper who was re-elected by a wide margin in December on promises to steer the country toward socialism, says the changes will give Venezuelans greater decision-making power and aid the transfer of billions of dollars from Venezuela's foreign reserves into social programs.
Ismael Garcia, one of the assembly's few dissidents, criticized pro-Chavez lawmakers for excluding opposition groups, arguing that Venezuelans of all political leanings must be included in the debate before the proposed reform is put to a vote organized by the National Elections Council.