Italian budget vote will test government's post-Berlusconi strength

Reuters

* Letta government almost certain to survive confidence vote

* Berlusconi has threatened to move into opposition

* Rising tension ahead of vote to expel Berlusconi fromparliament

* Berlusconi calls on senators to postpone vote

By Giuseppe Fonte

ROME, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister EnricoLetta's coalition government said on Monday it would call aconfidence vote on its 2014 budget, a move that will give thefirst clear proof of its strength since Silvio Berlusconi'sparty split this month.

Confidence votes, which limit the scope for time-consumingamendments, are regularly called to speed legislation in Italyand Letta is almost certain to win with the backing of rebelswho split from Berlusconi's centre-right party, now rebrandedunder its original name Forza Italia.

But the motion in the Senate heightens tension ahead of avote to expel Berlusconi from parliament this week and is likelyto cement the split between Forza Italia and Letta's coalitionof left and right formed after February's deadlocked elections.

Forza Italia will meet later on Monday to decide its stanceon the budget, Berlusconi told a news conference.

He said he was asking a court to overthrow his tax fraudconviction due to what he said was new evidence that exoneratedhim, and he called on his fellow senators to postpone the voteto expel him from parliament.

Voting to have one of the country's political leaders bootedout of the Senate would "bring you shame before your children,your voters and all Italians," Berlusconi said in a letter tosenators he read aloud.

"You can't imagine the indignation you feel in the face of aconviction for a crime you haven't committed," he said. Hedescribed himself as "an "exemplary citizen who has never evadedtaxes, but who has instead paid lots of them".

The 77-year-old billionaire has promised to break with thegovernment and go into open opposition if Letta's centre-leftDemocratic Party votes for his removal from parliament aspromised. Rallies by his supporters are planned in central Romeduring the vote.

His threat to pull out of the coalition prompted a partysplit earlier this month that has left 30 centre-right senatorsand 27 deputies supporting the government.

If stripped of his Senate seat, Berlusconi would loseimmunity from arrest and from being wiretapped by investigatorsas he faces at least two other criminal probes and appeals aconviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

The budget, a compromise bill worked out after muchwrangling between the coalition partners, includes some tax cutson labour costs but the European Commission has warned the taxand spending plans might not achieve debt reduction targets.

The confidence vote is scheduled for Tuesday but may bedelayed. It is just one part of the budget's passage throughparliament, which must be completed by the end of the year.

Squabbling between the centre-left and centre-right, tornbetween Berlusconi's demands for tax cuts and EU pressure forbudget rigour, has largely stymied promises to address Italy'srecession and pass much needed reforms.

The government has pledged to keep the fiscal deficit insidethe European Union's ceiling of 3 percent of gross domesticproduct but at 133 percent of GDP and rising, Italy's publicdebt burden is second only to Greece in the euro zone.

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