Argentine Senate starts debating budget bill

EFE

Argentina's Senate has kicked off debate on an austere 2019 budget bill that received lower-house approval last month.

The session kicked off amid tight security measures aimed at preventing a repeat of the disturbances that erupted in October when the Chamber of Deputies debated and passed this same bill.

Several hundred people have gathered outside the legislative palace on this occasion after leftist groups called for protests, although no incidents have been reported thus far.

"It's a very important budget. Historic. All Argentines are making a big effort to get the public accounts in order and end a history of deficits," Sen. Esteban Bullrich, an ally of conservative President Mauricio Macri, said before the start of the Senate session.

The bill spearheaded by Macri's administration forecasts a 0.5 percent economic contraction and a 23 percent inflation rate in 2019 and aims to cut the primary fiscal deficit (which doesn't include interest payments on debt) from a projected 2.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018 to zero next year.

Pursuing a zero-deficit budget will mean sharp spending cuts, which opposition sectors and the unions vehemently oppose.

Macri's administration, however, denies that those cuts will affect public spending on the poor or education, science and health-care budgets.

The budget bill is being debated at a time of economic turmoil, with the peso having plunged this year relative to the United States dollar and the government recently having secured a bailout package from the International Monetary Fund totaling $57 billion over three years.

Argentina committed to a zero deficit as part of its deal with the IMF.

Sen. Rodolfo Urtubey, a member of the divided left-wing Peronist opposition, said prior to the session that the bill would be subject to an intense debate.

"We've already said publicly that we'll support the stance of the leader of the (majority Peronist) bloc, Sen. (Miguel Angel) Pichetto, as far as .. respecting the need for a budget, although we're obviously very critical of how this economic program has evolved and the economic adjustment it entails," he added.

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