Berlusconi wavers ahead of confidence vote on Italy budget

Reuters
Italy's former PM Berlusconi attends a news conference in Rome
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Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi attends a news conference in Rome November 25, 2013. …

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday his party was still undecided on whether to withdraw its support for Prime Minister Enrico Letta's government, just hours before a confidence vote over the 2014 budget.

Letta is expected to win the vote without Berlusconi, but the primarily procedural move has nonetheless brought the clash between the two to a head.

A broad left-right coalition, formed after February's deadlocked national election, has supported Letta since April. Berlusconi, however, prompted a split in his party when he tried and failed to bring down the government last month.

The rift has left 30 center-right senators and 27 deputies supporting the government, which is enough to guarantee its survival.

"The government is in such confusion that it still has not written a definitive version and so we have not been able to read it," Berlusconi, a media magnate, said of the budget package during an interview with one of his TV channels.

But his Forza Italia party, whose lawmakers will meet in the afternoon to make their decision, is widely expected to break with the government and go into open opposition.

Tensions are running high ahead of a vote to strip Berlusconi of his Senate seat after a tax-fraud conviction in August. The vote, for which Berlusconi has called street rallies to protest, is expected late on Wednesday.

If stripped of his Senate seat, Berlusconi would lose immunity from arrest and from being wiretapped by investigators as he faces at least two other criminal probes and appeals a conviction for paying for sex with an underage prostitute.

The object of the Tuesday vote - the budget - includes some tax cuts on labor costs but the European Commission has warned the tax and spending plans might not achieve debt reduction targets.

Confidence votes limit the scope for time-consuming amendments and are regularly called to speed legislation. It is just one part of the budget's passage through parliament, which must be completed by the end of the year.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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