By Lisandra Paraguassu and Silvio Cascione
BRASILIA (Reuters) - A Supreme Court justice suspended the speaker of Brazil's lower house of Congress on Thursday for obstructing a corruption investigation, removing him from the line of succession to the president just days before she too is expected to be suspended.
A court spokeswoman said Eduardo Cunha, a bitter rival of President Dilma Rousseff and the legislator responsible for impeachment proceedings against her, had been removed as speaker pending confirmation by the full court.
The move, yet another political tremor in a country struggling with a historic government crisis and the worst recession in decades, followed a request from Brazil's top prosecutor.
As speaker, Cunha was third in line for the presidency and would have become second if Rousseff, as expected, is suspended from office next week because of alleged budget irregularities.
She would be replaced by Michel Temer, the 75-year-old vice president.
Supreme Court Justice Teori Zavascki accepted an injunction requested five months ago by the prosecutor general. The prosecutor sought Cunha's removal for allegedly intimidating lawmakers and obstructing investigation into accusations that he held undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland.
Cunha is the only sitting lawmaker officially charged by the Supreme Court with corruption in a sweeping kickbacks scandal focused on state oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, commonly known as Petrobras <PETR4.SA>.
An evangelical Christian with strong support from the religious right in Congress, Cunha has for months been fending off ethics committee hearings in the lower house about whether he lied about the Swiss accounts.
Deputy speaker Waldir Maranhao, a member of the Progressive Party who is also being investigated in the Petrobras scandal, became acting head of the lower chamber with Cunha's suspension.
Cunha, a crafty manager of congressional procedure, has been dubbed the Frank Underwood of Brazilian politics by the country's media, a reference to the ruthless president in "The House of Cards" television series.
Another request for his removal, arguing that a defendant cannot be next in line for the presidency, will be judged later on Thursday by the Supreme Court.
Cunha launched impeachment proceedings against Rousseff in December on charges she broke budget laws. As an implacable foe of the president, his suspension could have helped Rousseff had it come earlier.
Now it could work against her by weakening her argument that she is being impeached by corrupt politicians. It could, in contrast, help a Temer presidency by removing the taint of suspicion from a key position with whom the new president would have to negotiate for legislative traction.
"Temer would inherit the presidency because of a process started by Cunha," said Rafael Cortez, a political analyst with Tendencias, a consultancy in Sao Paulo. "Any agreements they would have made could have looked like payback for enabling him to become president."
Most crucial for Temer is the need to pass much-needed reforms to kick-start the economy, plug a gaping budget deficit and restore confidence for Brazil's struggling consumers, businesses and industry.
Cunha is under investigation for allegedly receiving $5 million in bribes on contracts for two drill-ships in the corruption scheme that engulfed Petrobras two years ago. Though Rousseff has not been accused of any wrongdoing directly related to the scandal, it has ensnared key allies and raised pressure for her ouster.
The leftist president is fighting for her political survival since the lower house commanded by Cunha voted on April 17 to charge her with manipulating government accounts, which her opponents say allowed her to boost public spending before her 2014 re-election.
Rousseff denies any wrongdoing.
She lashed out at Cunha on Thursday for launching the "shameless" proceedings against her. She said Cunha was motivated by revenge because her Workers Party did not come to his aid to avoid the ethics probe.
"We didn't give him the votes and that's when he began the impeachment process," Rousseff said. "It’s a clear abuse of power. He used his position for revenge."
A Senate impeachment committee will decide on Friday whether to recommend that the plenary of the upper house vote to try her. The plenary vote, expected on Wednesday, would suspend Rousseff and replace her with Temer, who is already forming a cabinet.
Cunha's suspension increases the likelihood that the house ethics committee will strip him of his seat, sidelining him altogether.
Maranhao would lead the lower chamber until the next session of Congress in February, but as acting speaker he would not be in the presidential line of succession.
Should Temer become president, Senate leader Renan Calheiros, another politician who is under investigation for corruption, would become the next in line to lead the nation.
(Additional reporting by Alonso Soto; Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Paulo Prada and James Dalgleish)