RIO DE JANEIRO – A congressional committee voted Monday to recommend that the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff move forward, bringing the possible ouster of the embattled leader a step closer.
Rousseff is facing impeachment proceedings over allegations her administration violated fiscal rules to mask budget problems. Her opponents say the process is in line with the wishes of the majority of Brazilians, while Rousseff's supporters call it a blatant power grab by her foes.
The special congressional commission voted 38-27 to recommend the continuation of the impeachment process — comfortably more than the 33 votes needed to hand the pro-impeachment camp a victory.
The panel's session stretched out all day and was marked by a prolonged shouting match ahead of the evening vote. Pro-impeachment leaders festooned their desks with signs reading "impeachment now," while Rousseff's supporters chanted "Coup, coup, coup"
The outcome had been widely expected, and it was largely symbolic because no matter the outcome of the vote, the matter would still have gone to the full lower house for a crucial vote expected at week's end on whether to send the matter to the Senate for a possible trial.
With 342 votes in the 513-member Chamber of Deputies needed for the process to move forward, analysts say the outcome of that vote is too close to call. Brazil's biggest party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, pulled out of Rousseff's governing coalition late last month, forcing the government to scramble to secure the support of smaller parties to help block the impeachment process.
If the impeachment measure passes in the Chamber of Deputies, it goes to the Senate, which would decide whether to open a trial. If that happened, Rousseff would be suspended from office for up to 180 days during a trial.
In yet another twist in the months-long saga, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo released the audio of an address by Vice President Michel Temer, who would take over if Rousseff were suspended. The audio, which the newspaper said was sent to members of Temer's Democratic Movement, appears to be a draft of an address that Temer would make to the Brazilian people if the impeachment process were to move forward following a vote in the full Chamber of Deputies.
In the address, Temer speaks as if he had already assumed the top job, saying, "Many people sought me out so that I would give at least preliminary remarks to the Brazilian nation, which I am doing with modesty, caution and moderation."
Temer says Brazil needs a "government of national salvation" to pull the country out of its severest recession in decades and calls for unity in the splintered political system. In an apparent bid to soothe the impoverished segments of society that are among Rousseff's strongest supporters, Temer pledges not to dismantle popular wealth-transfer programs and to expand them as necessary.
At a news conference later Monday in Brasilia, Temer said the 13-minute audio was recorded for a friend, but was sent "by accident" to fellow party members. "I am not saying anything new (in the audio) because those are theories that I have defended in the course of time," Temer told reporters.
In response, Brazil's political affairs minister and Rousseff ally, Ricardo Berzoini, repeated the government's position that the impeachment effort amounts to a coup and pointed to Temer the driving force behind the attempt. The recording "shows the putchist characteristics of the vice president," Berzoini told reporters.
"He is mixing the investigation with an indirect election. He is fighting for votes," Berzoini added.
Thousands of Rousseff supporters turned out for anti-impeachment events in downtown Rio de Janeiro, including top musicians and other stars. Speaking at one of the events, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff's mentor and predecessor, lashed out at Temer, telling the crowd the recording had exposed the vice president's desire to oust Rousseff.
Silva dismissed the vote by the congressional panel, calling it unimportant and saying the real test will come with the vote in the full Chamber of Deputies.
A Supreme Court justice last week ruled that the speaker of the lower house in Congress must open impeachment proceedings against Temer, who faces the same allegations of breaking fiscal rules as Rousseff.
If Temer also was suspended from office, house Speaker Eduardo Cunha would be in line to assume the presidency. But Cunha is facing money laundering and other charges stemming from allegations that he received kickbacks in the sprawling corruption scandal at the state-run Petrobras oil company.
The continuing investigation into the far-reaching scheme has shaken Brazil over the past two years, with top politicians and some of the country's richest and most powerful businessmen detained, charged and convicted.
A poll released Saturday suggested that while support for Rousseff's impeachment remains high, it has decreased some in recent weeks amid the political jockeying. The survey by the respected Datafolha polling agency said 61 percent of respondents supported impeachment of the president, down seven points from a March poll.
Asked about the vice president, 58 percent of those surveyed said they supported impeachment for Temer.
The poll was conducted April 7-8, with interviews with 2,779 people nationwide. The margin of error was plus or minus two percentage points.