RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — President Dilma Rousseff launched into a bitter battle with a fragmented Congress on Thursday after impeachment proceedings were introduced against her in the lower house as Brazil falls deeper into a political and economic crisis.
Rousseff's supporters came out in force and went on the attack against House of Deputies Speaker Eduardo Cunha, who allowed the impeachment proceedings to open.
Among her defenders was former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Rousseff's political mentor who hand-selected her to take over for him and remains a powerful political force.
"I'm outraged by what they're doing to this country," Silva told reporters on a visit to Rio de Janeiro. "The president is making immeasurable efforts to push through (economic) reforms. But the speaker of the house has taken the decision to not care about Brazil."
Cunha introduced impeachment proceedings Wednesday evening, citing a court's finding that Rousseff's administration violated fiscal responsibility laws by using money from state-run banks to fill budget gaps and pay for social programs.
The timing couldn't be worse for the leader of Latin America's largest economy.
Brazil is facing its deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression as consumer demand and commodity prices have plummeted, and a sprawling kickback scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras has cast a pall over the entire business community and frozen investments.
Rousseff's Workers' Party has already lodged three legal complaints before the Supreme Court seeking to knock down Cunha's move, arguing that he exceeded his powers as house speaker. It's not clear when any ruling from the court might come.
Cunha in the coming days will give the 29 parties with representatives in the lower house 48 hours to appoint members to a special House commission that will debate the impeachment measure and vote on whether it should go before the full house.
Analysts said the impeachment proceedings will likely make it out of the commission, but seem unlikely to get the needed two-thirds vote in the full house.
But if impeachment did pass the House, Rousseff would be temporarily removed from office for up to six months, her vice president would take over, and the Senate would then decide whether Rousseff should be permanently removed.
Rousseff, who has the lowest poll ratings for a president since Brazil's return to democracy in 1985, sharply rejected any wrongdoing.
"I've committed no illicit act. There is no suspicion hanging over me of any misuse of public money," she said in a national broadcast speech late Wednesday.
Although Rousseff was narrowly re-elected last November, her image has suffered as a result of the political corruption scandal at Petrobras, even though she has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Cunha, on the other hand, has been charged with taking millions in bribes in connection to the scheme. Prosecutors allege Cunha has at least $5 million hidden in Swiss bank accounts and it is widely thought he could be arrested.
An ethics committee in the House of Deputies is considering whether the full body should vote on the question of Cunha losing his seat because of the corruption investigation.
He launched the impeachment proceedings just hours after three Workers' Party lawmakers on the 21-member ethics committee indicated they would recommend he be removed from Congress.
"I have no political motivation," Cunha said. "There have never been as many requests to impeach a president as in this administration."
On the public animosity that exists between him and Rousseff, Cunha told reporters Thursday that "there is no war between us. What exists is the incapacity of an executive branch that isn't able to govern."
Carlos Melo, a political science professor at the Insper business school in Sao Paulo, said he expects the impeachment battle to be long — but that Rousseff was unlikely to give in to any pressure to exit office voluntarily.
"Dilma resigning? Never. It's not her style," he said. "So far all these accusations seem political and trying to find a legal explanation is pointless."
Members of the opposition backed Cunha's impeachment effort.
"It is not a coup. We are talking about a mechanism that exists in our constitution," said Sen. Aecio Neves, who narrowly lost to Rousseff in last year's presidential election.
The impeachment effort comes as Brazil's economy is expected to contract more than 3.5 percent this year and again be in recession next year. That could be a wild card for Rousseff as she fights for her political life.
"President Dilma Rousseff, who began in such a gloomy state less than a year ago, is now facing dark days. The outcome is unpredictable," wrote Eliane Cantanhede, a political columnist for the newspaper Estado do S. Paulo. "She may or may not survive."
Associated Press writer Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report.
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