Argentina Senate hands Milei 'bittersweet' win with reform bill backing

FILE PHOTO: Senate debates Milei's "omnibus bill"

By Nicolás Misculin

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) -Argentina's Senate has handed libertarian President Javier Milei an important win by approving his key reform bill and a twin fiscal package, but not without exacting a significant toll, watering down both legislations to push them through.

The Senate late on Wednesday approved in general terms Milei's "Bases" law by a razor-thin margin, a boost for his austerity and pro-market program that has spurred markets and improved state finances, but hit the wider economy hard.

In the early hours of Thursday it also approved a separate fiscal package in general terms, but rejected specific portions on taxes and property.

While the bills will go back to the lower house of deputies to ratify the changes, the Senate backing is critical for Milei, an ebullient economist and former pundit who took office in December pledging to overhaul the embattled country's economy.

It signaled his ability to win over conservative and centrist allies, despite his libertarian party only having a small minority of seats in Congress. It also came amid violent and fiery protests against the bill outside the legislature.

"It is symbolic to have shown that such a minority force in both chambers can achieve the approval of such an important law," cabinet chief Guillermo Francos said in a statement.

The Senate approval boosted Argentina's international dollar bonds on Thursday after investors breathed a sigh of relief that the sprawling bill that includes articles on privatizations to incentives for investment had not been rejected.

The government had to negotiate hard, however, to win support, agreeing to changes to the investment incentive plans and removing state entities such as the national airline and postal service from a list of firms to be privatized.

"It is a key step, even if it's not the (original) official proposal nor the one approved by Deputies," said Juan Massot, an economic scientist at the local Universidad del Salvador. "It strengthens the government and eases investor anxiety."

Ernesto Revilla, Latin America economist at Citi, said in a note to clients that the Senate backing was a victory for Milei, but had come at a cost.

"The approval of the bill marks a bittersweet win for Milei's administration, in our view, with approval of a bill that has been six months in the working but has been constantly diluted in the process," he wrote.


On the streets Argentines had mixed feelings.

The country is grappling with triple-digit inflation, high debt loads, distorting capital controls and depleted central bank reserves. Milei has made getting the state's finances in order his focus, a tough medicine approach that's helped over-turn a deep fiscal deficit but hit economic activity and jobs.

"Truth be told this is a disaster, I think it is terrifying what they've voted for," Laura Cancinos told Reuters on a busy street in the capital early on Thursday. "It seems to me that we don't yet realize the consequences it could have."

Juan Pablo Echevesti, on his way to work in Buenos Aires, was more upbeat.

"I can't see how there was any other option to move forward but a radical change in the sense of what they are proposing," he said. "I don't agree with it 100% but I think it will be a favorable change. I hope I'm not wrong."

Joydeep Mukherji, a managing director at ratings agency S&P Global, said the Senate win could mark a "breakthrough" if it were ratified in the lower house, but there was a "lot more homework to be done" before any ratings upgrade.

"We're at that stage where things are getting worse for the average person across the country," he said at an event.

"The question is, can they go fast enough and with enough sophistication, and luck, that they can persevere during the worst moments of this adjustment."

(Reporting by Nicolas Misculin; Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker, Libby George, Miguel Lo Bianco and Hernan Nessi; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Alistair Bell, Kirsten Donovan)