Bolsonaro allies win control of Brazilian Congress

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Brazil’s Congress on Monday chose lawmakers endorsed by President Jair Bolsonaro as speakers of its two chambers, giving the far-right leader a base among center-right politicians with whom he had once vowed never to ally.

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Senator Rodrigo Pacheco won the two-year term to head the upper chamber by a vote of 57-21. Another new Bolsonaro ally, Arthur Lira of the right-wing Progressive Party, later won the speakership of the lower house by 302 votes against 145 for his nearest rival.

Bolsonaro’s support for Pacheco and Lira underscores his embrace of a fragmented bloc of lawmakers known more for their horse-trading prowess than ideological commitments, called the ‘Centrão,’ or ‘Big Center.’

The president ran in 2018 on a pledge to clean up the capital and end decades of pay-to-play politics that culminated in a record-breaking corruption scandal known as Car Wash.

Lira faces charges of taking bribes in the Car Wash and other probes, although the cases have not advanced in the courts and some have been dismissed. His lawyers have denied any wrongdoing by their client.

Lira promised to be independent of the government and push through emergency measures to assist Brazilians hit by the coronavirus pandemic. He called for a moment of silence for the dead in his victory speech.

Bolsonaro’s stronger standing in Congress should dispel for now the growing clamor for his impeachment from critics who have filed 60 requests to unseat him, mainly for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed some 224,000 Brazilians.

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Pacheco, of the center-right Democrats party, has vowed to seek a compromise between fiscal restraints and assistance to socially vulnerable Brazilians hurt by the pandemic.

He has also said he would not make a priority of privatizing Eletrobras, Latin America’s largest utility and one of the government’s biggest potential asset sales as it works to cut the fiscal deficit.

Despite deep recession and the world’s second-deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, opinion polls show Bolsonaro retaining his core support of a third of the electorate, though his negatives rose in January as the second wave of the pandemic began to bite.

His popular support, along with a growing willingness to discuss traditional horse-trading in Congress, have helped him secure a political base of center-right lawmakers.

Opening the cash taps has also helped. Newspaper Estado de S. Paulo reported last week that Bolsonaro authorized 3 billion reais ($550 million) in pork barrel spending in the districts of 250 lawmakers and 35 senators.

($1 = 5.45 reais)

Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Maria Carolina Marcello; editing by Brad Haynes and Richard Pullin