BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Brazil's embattled president survived a key congressional vote that could have suspended him over a bribery charge, mustering enough support Wednesday night to stay in office and avoid being tried by the country's highest court.
President Michel Temer needed the support of just one-third of the 513 members of the lower Chamber of Deputies, or 171 members. Hours after the voting began, he had received the votes of more than that number of legislators. In the end, 263 deputies voted for the president and 227 voted against him. The remaining were abstentions and absences.
While Temer was clearly victorious, he won't likely have much time to celebrate. Attorney General Rodrigo Janot, who leveled the bribery charge against Temer, is expected to charge him with obstruction of justice by the end of the month. That would provoke a second vote, forcing his allies to once again decide whether to risk their own political futures by sticking with the deeply unpopular leader. All 513 seats in the chamber are up for election next year.
The bribery allegation, which stunned even Brazilians inured to graft cases, was the latest in a bevy of scandals that has rocked the administration and created deep uncertainty and angst in Latin America's largest nation.
The vote in the Chamber of Deputies began after a day of hearings and vote cajoling by both sides behind the scene. Opposition lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to delay the vote, an acknowledgement that they likely wouldn't get enough support to suspend Temer despite his dismal support nationwide. The latest national poll said just 5 percent of Brazilians approval of Temer. Over the last several weeks, Temer has been frantically dolling out millions of dollars in pork to legislators to shore up support.
Throughout the day, there was shouting and even periodic pushing between lawmakers.
"Temer is a crook and he needs to sort out his situation with the Justice Department," said Elvino Bohn Gass, a member of the Workers' Party, one of the main opposition parties. "Brazil should not be governed by a gang of thugs."
For the vote, which was telecast by the influential Globo network, each member was announced and asked his or her vote. While members voting against Temer were outspoken, most of those who supported him cast their vote without speaking, a sign that many preferred not to broadcast their support for the deeply unpopular leader.
"Brazil can't change presidents three times in one year," said Sergio Moraes, a Temer supporter. "He will be investigated later."
Temer, then vice president, took office about a year ago after Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed as president for improperly handling government finances.
Since taking power, Temer's administration has been rocked by repeated scandals while still managing to move unpopular legislation forward, such as a loosening of labor rules and proposals to trim pension benefits.
The ambitious economic overhaul agenda, supported by Brazil's business class, has helped the 76-year-old Temer stay in office so far despite the uproar over corruption allegations.
Early in the day, Temer's lawyer, Antonio Claudio Mariz de Oliveira, tore into the charge against the president during his opening statement. He said that a recording secretly made of the president in March was illegal and that a confiscated suitcase of money, allegedly destined for Temer, was a red herring.
"The suitcase of money was returned" by the police to the Temer aide who had been carrying it, said Mariz de Oliveira. "Why was it returned? Because the president is a good man, an innocent man."
Throughout a rocky year in office, Temer has been able to maintain most of his governing coalition in the Chamber of Deputies, where he was the presiding officer for many years.
The few who spoke in his favor praised Temer's stewardship of Latin America's biggest economy, which is struggling to emerge from its worst recession in decades.
"Brazil is improving," said Mauro Pereira, a member of Temer's party. "Inflation is going down, our national reserves are going up. We now have international credibility."
Many economists, however, note that while inflation has slowed, unemployment has sky-rocketed and several states and municipalities are broke and unable to pay thousands of public workers.
The session was the latest fallout from a colossal corruption investigation that has led to the jailing of many of the country's elite, including Marcelo Odebrecht, the former CEO of giant construction company Odebrecht, and Eduardo Cunho, the former lower house speaker who is serving a 15-year sentence.
A recording purportedly made in March emerged in which Temer apparently supported the continued payment of hush money to Cunha, the powerful former speaker believed to have dirt on many politicians.
As part of the probe, it came to light that Temer allegedly orchestrated a scheme in which he would get payouts totaling millions of dollars for helping JBS, a giant meat-packing company, resolve a business issue. A former aide was arrested while carrying a suitcase with $150,000, much of which was allegedly destined for Temer.
"To be a great nation Brazil needs a president that is honest, Christian and patriotic," said Jair Bolsonaro, a presidential hopeful.
Associated Press writer Peter Prengaman reported this story in Brasilia and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Sao Paulo. AP video journalists Renata Brito and Mario Lobao in Brasilia contributed to this report.
Peter Prengaman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterprengaman
Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MSavarese