By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tied his political future on Monday to a reform package aimed at creating more stable government by stripping the upper house of parliament of key functions and concentrating power in the lower chamber.
In the latest step of his ambitious reform drive, cabinet signed off on a bill to transform the Senate into a non-elected regional chamber without the power to approve budgets or hold votes of no-confidence in a government.
The constitutional reforms will have no direct impact on Italy's stricken economy, still struggling to overcome its worst postwar recession and straining under a 2 trillion euro ($2.8 trillion) public debt.
But Renzi, Italy's third prime minister in a year, has said that without a change in the system, the country risks being stuck with a rotating series of short-lived governments incapable of passing meaningful economic reforms.
If the change to the Senate, which will require a change in the constitution, is blocked in parliament, he said it would be a sign that he had failed in politics and he would "accept the consequences".
"I'm not here to occupy a seat. I'm here to try to change Italy," Renzi, head of the center-left Democratic Party (PD), told a news conference after the cabinet meeting.
"If you want to ask a citizen, an entrepreneur, a mother, a worker to take a risk and you're not willing to take a risk yourself, you're not credible," he said.
The 39-year-old former mayor of Florence became Italy's youngest prime minister after a party coup in February, taking over the unwieldy cross-party coalition formed after last year's deadlocked general election.
BLOATED POLITICAL SYSTEM
The bill would scrap a system that grants equal powers to the Senate and the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, but elects them by different rules, making it hard for any group to win a stable overall majority.
The Senate would become a weakened regional chamber made up of city mayors and a handful of specially appointed members. It would review regional and constitutional issues but would no longer be able to bring down a government. It would have fewer than half of its current 320 members.
The reform is a key part of a wider drive to slim down Italy's bloated political apparatus, which comprises 950 Senators and deputies - almost twice as many as the 535-strong U.S. Congress - as well as many thousands of local politicians.
Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who agreed the broad outlines of the package with Renzi last month, has offered the backing of his center-right Forza Italia party.
But despite loud public calls for change from across the political spectrum, the reform is likely to meet strong opposition from many senators, who will be asked to scrap their own jobs.
Another proposal, to cut layers of local government, had to be forced through the Senate last week with a confidence vote after it ran into heavy opposition in committee.
Changing the status of the Senate is bound up with a separate reform of the electoral law intended to favor strong coalitions in the lower house, although parliament has been wrangling over which of the two reforms should be passed first.
Renzi said he wanted the Senate reform to receive preliminary approval before European parliamentary elections on May 25, although its final passage will require a constitutional change expected to take as much as a year to complete.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)