The president of Brazil's Senate refused to comply Tuesday with a Supreme Court injunction removing him from his post as head of the upper house of Congress, creating a constitutional crisis in a country already reeling from a parliamentary coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Dilma Rousseff.
Supreme Court Justice Marco Aurelio de Mello ordered Renan Calheiros to step down as president of the Senate after the top court indicted him last week on charges of embezzlement.
But following a three-hour meeting on Tuesday, the leaders of Brazil's Senate published a letter refusing to enact Calheiros' suspension until the Supreme Court's plenary rules on it Wednesday.
Emerging from the meeting, Calheiros told reporters he would continue in the position and criticized the attempt to remove him before his mandate officially ends.
Justice de Mello accepted the emergency request to consider the issue precisely because the Supreme Court is set to go on recess on Dec. 19 and, without a ruling, Calheiros would remain in his position until court goes into session again in February 2017.
The ongoing political drama threatens to derail unelected President Michel Temer's efforts to impose a controversial 20-year austerity program on Brazil. At stake is the final vote in the Senate, scheduled for Dec. 13, on whether or not to approve a two-decade cap on public spending.
Upon hearing Justice de Mello's ruling, senators from the Workers' Party of ousted President Rousseff said the fiscal measures should be delayed until the Senate sits again in the new year.
"How can we vote for this explosive agenda in the climate of instability in which no one knows who is in command of the Senate," Workers' Party Senator Paulo Paim said.
Other Workers' Party senators, including Lindbergh Farias, agreed that the vote on the constitutional amendment could no longer take place.
However, Senator Jorge Vianna — first vice president of the Senate and a member of the Workers' Party — struck a conciliatory tone and included his signature in the letter released by the Senate leadership refusing to abide by the injunction.
In a reference to Congress' efforts to pass the contested constitutional amendment on public spending, the document argued that the decision to remove Calheiros would “gravely impact the functioning of legislative activities … to address the unprecedented economic crisis that the country is facing.”
Vianna was not present during the first round of voting on the constitutional amendment.
Humberto Costa, head of the Workers' Party, suggested that the decision to proceed with the vote or not would lie in the hands of Vianna.
“There will be a dispute about the execution or not of the (legislative) agenda where there are disagreements," said Costa, as quoted by Carta Capital. "He will talk to the (Workers' Party) caucus and the leaders (of the Senate) and decide the best way forward.”
Senator Romero Juca, Temer's representative in the Congress, expressed confidence that Vianna would allow the vote to go forward.
"Viana is honest and committed to the country, there will be no change,” said Juca.
The full court is expected to uphold the injunction, meaning Vianna will likely become the head of the Senate in the immediate term.
A recent ruling favored by a majority of the court decided that no one indicted for a crime can be in the presidential line of succession. The head of the Senate is the second in line after the speaker of the lower house, as Brazil does not have a vice president at the moment.
After months of political turmoil surrounding the ouster of President Rousseff from office in a move widely condemned as a parliamentary coup, the heads of both houses of Congress have been embroiled in scandals leading authorities to remove them from their posts. First, the chief leader behind Rousseff's ouster, Eduardo Cunha, was booted from his role as the head of the lower house. Now, Calheiros' post faces similar scrutiny.
The move to suspend Calheiros also comes as Brazil's Congress has moved to gut an anti-corruption bill in what critics describe as a bid to protect corrupt political elites from prosecution by putting a stop to landmark fraud investigations.