By Ricardo Brito
BRASILIA, Jan 18 (Reuters) - President Jair Bolsonaro's candidate to become the next speaker of the lower chamber of Brazil's Congress favors helping the most needy Brazilians hit by the coronavirus pandemic, but vows to keep the country's budget deficit under control.
In written responses to queries from Reuters on Friday, Arthur Lira said an alternative had to be found to extending last year's emergency transfers that are on track to cost 322 billion reais ($61 billion) and blow a record hole in the government's finances.
"Our concern today is to comply with the spending ceiling," Lira said, questioning where the resources would come from to fund an extension of the monthly stipend sought by Bolsonaro's leftist opposition.
Lira proposed instead an alternative payment for people who are not registered for government social benefits such as the Bolsa Familia conditional payments program.
More than 209,000 Brazilians have died in the second-deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside of the United States, as a second wave of infections has pushed the number of COVID-19 cases close to 8.5 million.
The worsening pandemic and the prospect of new lockdowns have increased pressure to continue supporting stipends paid to low-income Brazilians and those who have lost livelihoods.
Last year, the government paid a stipend of 600 reais that was later cut to 300 reais to supplement incomes, but an emergency measures bill that the Senate will debate when Congress returns from recess in February excluded its extension.
Instead, the bill focuses on triggers that would allow federal, state and municipal governments local room to maneuver to avoid breaching the legally mandated spending cap.
Lira said passing the emergency measures was the top priority when Congress returns on Feb. 1 and votes for a new speaker in the chamber and the next leader of the Senate.
His main rival, centrist Baleia Rossi, is backed by leftist parties and his victory would likely lead to greater government spending to alleviate the hardship of the pandemic.
($1 = 5.29 reais) (Reporting by Ricardo Brito, Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Bernadette Baum)
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