ROME (Reuters) - Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has moved a step closer to pushing through constitutional reforms he says will create a more stable government, after a raucous debate that saw opposition parties walk out of parliament.
After a marathon session that ended in the early hours of Saturday, deputies in Renzi's majority coalition approved the measures in a half-empty chamber that had been deserted by most of the opposition.
The measures, central to Renzi's promised reforms of the political system, are intended to allow more stable government by shrinking the Senate and removing its power to block laws, leaving the Chamber of Deputies dominant in the legislature.
The result still must be passed by the Senate itself, where Renzi's coalition has a much smaller majority. He also will lack support from former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who withdrew his backing after the 40 year-old Renzi pushed through the election of Sergio Mattarella as president last month, against Berlusconi's objections. [ID:nL6N0VE4XP]
Previously, the two leaders had agreed to cooperate on constitutional reforms under an accord known as the "Nazarene Pact", named after the headquarters of Renzi's center-left Democratic Party, where it was sealed last year. The bill passed the vote in the lower house without Berlusconi's help.
Renzi drew bitter criticism from opposition parties for ramming a key constitutional measure through without broad support from parliament, which was powerless to stop it despite rowdy clashes.
Renato Brunetta, lower house floor leader of Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, accused Renzi of a "slide into authoritarianism".
The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement said Italy was on the verge of a "bloodless coup".
"There is only one way out: to dissolve parliament and go to new elections," the 5-Star leader, Beppe Grillo, said on his blog.
Renzi himself defended the decision to proceed with the vote and promised to push on with his reform agenda.
"We did everything we could to make sure the opposition was at the negotiating table," he told RAI state television. "What can we do if they go off?"
In the Senate, Renzi has a smaller majority. He also faces not just opposition parties but also a significant number of dissidents in his Democratic Party.
A final vote is expected in early March, but the proposals, which Renzi said would be put to a referendum, are not expected to become law until at least the end of the year.
Reporting by Isla Binnie and James Mackenzie; Editing by Larry King