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Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi talks during a joint news conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso at the end of a meeting at Villa Madama in Rome July 4, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Remo Casilli(reuters_tickers)
By Roberto Landucci
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Senators clashed furiously on Tuesday over Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's plan to strip the upper house of most of its powers as part of a wide-ranging package of reforms to Italy's system of government and economy.
The planned reform of the Senate and Title V of the constitution, which governs the relationship between the regions and the national government, has become mired in parliamentary trench warfare, posing a growing threat to Renzi's wider reform agenda.
The government says the reform is needed to ensure stable, efficient government and overcome parliamentary deadlock, but opposition parties accuse it of trying to undermine democracy and concentrate power in its own hands.
On Tuesday, debate was interrupted several times by shouting between the government and the opposition benches. Only a handful of the thousands of amendments put forward by opposition parties were voted on.
"Italians don't deserve the scenes they saw today in the Senate today," Maria Elena Boschi, the minister for reforms, told reporters in parliament. She said the government would push ahead with the bill.
Opposition parties including the pro-devolution Northern League, the leftist SEL and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement have formed an unlikely alliance, introducing almost 8,000 amendments to delay the reforms, which were originally brought to parliament in April.
In a posting on his widely followed blog, 5-Star leader Beppe Grillo said his party would resist what he called a "coup d'etat" as long as possible, but would walk out of parliament if it did not succeed in overturning the bill.
"It's better to get out and talk to the citizens in the streets of Rome and Italy," he said.
The government has set a cutoff date of Aug. 8 for a first reading of the bill. Even if it comes through that, the reform is unlikely to become law for at least another year.
The battle is being seen as a sign of the kind of resistance Renzi will encounter with other parts of his agenda, including an overhaul of labour laws, reform of a bloated public administration and measures to rein in Italy's mountainous public debt, set to top 135 percent of gross domestic product this year.
Italy's economy, the third-largest in the euro zone, is in urgent need of structural reform after two decades of virtual stagnation. After dipping in and out of recession since the start of the financial crisis, the economy has contracted by some 9 percent since 2007.
Renzi wants to halve the size of the Senate in size and turn it into an assembly of regions with little power, replacing the elected Senators with local mayors and regional politicians.
The change is intended to complement a separate reform of the electoral law that would raise the threshold for parties to enter parliament and bring in a two-round voting system that would ensure a clear winner after an election.
Last year's deadlocked election, in which no side was able to form a government, increased pressure for an overhaul of the system.
"Italians have asked us to change a political system that doesn't work anymore," Renzi said in a Facebook posting. "We will keep our promises without fear and without giving up."
(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Kevin Liffey)