By Maria Carolina Marcello
BRASILIA - Brazil's lower house approved on Thursday a bill that would create a massive social welfare program known as Auxilio Brasil, replacing a previous program known as Bolsa Familia, which has been a mainstay of Brazilian social policy for nearly two decades.
The bill will now go to the Senate where leaders have promised to treat the measure as a priority.
Introduced by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, Auxilio Brasil would double the size of cash welfare payments to poor families in Brazil to 400 reais ($71.90) monthly and would increase the number of families covered to 17 million.
Bolsonaro's government says the measure is needed to help lower-income Brazilians whose livelihoods have been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, while his opponents say the measure is a cynical ploy to increase his popularity heading into an October election, which polls predict he would lose.
Brazil's lower house approved a constitutional amendment earlier in the month, which has spooked markets, that effectively allows the government to blow past its spending cap to fund the measure.
The Auxilio Brasil bill was approved unanimously with 344 votes in favor.
Some sectors of the opposition expressed disappointment that Auxilio Brasil's benefits are not indexed to inflation, something that had been a matter of significant debate.
"How, ladies and gentlemen, can you not index this to inflation? How can you not keep these payments up to date?" asked Marcelo Freixo, a leftist lawmaker from Rio de Janeiro.
"Taking this out is insensitive and inhumane in times of hunger."
($1 = 5.56 reais)
(Reporting by Maria Carolina Marcello; Writing by Gram Slattery; Editing by Daniel Wallis)