BRASILIA A committee of Brazil's lower house of Congress voted 38-27 on Monday to recommend the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, who faces charges of breaking budget laws to support her re-election in 2014.
A vote in the full lower house is expected to take place on Sunday. If two-thirds vote in favour, the impeachment will be sent to the Senate.
If the upper house decides by a simple majority to put Rousseff on trial, she will immediately be suspended for up to six months while the Senate decides her fate, and Vice President Michel Temer will take office as acting president.
It would be the first impeachment of a Brazilian president since 1992 when Fernando Collor de Mello faced massive protests for his ouster on corruption charges and resigned on the eve of his conviction by the Senate.
Rousseff chief of staff Jaques Wagner said the president was "perplexed and saddened" by the committee vote. A former leftist guerrilla, she has denied any wrongdoing and rallied the rank and file of her Workers' Party to oppose what she has called a coup against a democratically elected president.
Analysts said the committee's recommendation to move forward with the impeachment proceedings would influence how the full house votes.
"It has a snowball effect. With each approval, the chances of impeachment clearing the next chamber increases," said Claudio Couto, a political science professor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas think tank in Sao Paulo. "The wider the margin, the more momentum impeachment will gather."
The latest moves in Brazil's political crisis have the country on edge as it faces not only a government meltdown but its worst recession in decades. The political chaos in the capital, Brasilia, is also playing out less than 100 days before the nation plays host to the first Olympic Games to be held in South America - an event that will cast the world's eyes on Brazil.
The battle over Rousseff's impeachment has polarized the nation of 200 million people and brought the government of Latin America's largest economy to a virtual standstill.
The proposed impeachment is also taking place as Brazil faces its largest corruption investigation, targeting a sprawling kickback scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras.
Prosecutors say billions in bribes were paid over several years and have implicated not only members of Rousseff's Workers' Party but members of the opposition leading the charge to impeach her.
Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of Brazil's lower house, a Rousseff enemy who is guiding the impeachment proceedings, faces charges of accepting millions in bribes in connection to the Petrobras case, while the head of Brazil's Senate is also caught up in the investigation.
To battle against approval of impeachment in the full lower house vote, Rousseff's government is trying to convince lawmakers to vote against it or abstain by offering government jobs that became vacant when Rousseff's main ally, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, or PMDB, broke with her two weeks ago.
"There are sufficient indications to proceed with impeachment," Congressman Jovair Arantes reported to the committee on Monday.
Attorney General Jose Eduardo Cardozo, addressing the raucous committee meeting, said Arantes had not managed to pinpoint a crime by Rousseff and the move to oust her was unconstitutional: "It is absurd to remove a legitimately elected president for an accounting problem."
VP URGES NATIONAL UNITY GOVERNMENT
Brazil's vice president called for a government of national unity in a message that was released on Monday apparently by mistake, further muddying the political waters just hours before the committee vote.
Temer's 14-minute audio message sent to members of his own PMDB via the Whatsapp messaging app showed he was preparing to take over if Rousseff is forced from office.
The audio was posted on the website of the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper and confirmed to Reuters by Temer's aides as authentic. Aides said it was accidentally released and they quickly sent another message asking legislators to disregard it.
While carefully stating that his words did not anticipate the outcome of the impeachment process, Temer said: "The big mission going forward is the pacification of our nation, the unification of our country."
"We need a government of national salvation and national unity," Temer said in the audio. "We need to unite all the political parties, and all the parties should be ready to collaborate to drag Brazil out of this crisis."
The margin of victory is important in swaying undecided lawmakers in the lower house plenary vote, where recent polls show neither side has guaranteed enough support.
Rousseff, caught in a political storm fuelled by Brazil's worst recession in decades and the corruption scandal, has lost key coalition allies in Congress.
Her mentor and predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, himself facing a graft investigation, led a big protest in Rio de Janeiro seeking to stir popular opposition to impeachment around the time of Monday's committee vote.
(Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Brasilia and Pilar Olivares in Rio de Janeiro; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)
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