Constitutional deficit rule gets past first obstacle in lower house

Minority groups resent being asked to rubber-stamp landmark reform

The proposal by the Socialist (PSOE) government and the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) to embody the principle of budgetary stability in the Constitution overcame its first hurdle in Congress on Tuesday amid widespread opposition from the lower house's minority parties.

Congress approved opening up to debate the joint initiative by normally rancorous opponents turned strange bedfellows by 318 votes in favor, 16 against and two abstentions. Of the minority groups only the Navarre regional party UPN backed the controversial proposal that has also raised the hackles of the country's main unions and a whole gamut of other pressure groups.

The Catalan center-right nationalist group CiU, although professing to be in favor of fiscal discipline, declined to vote on the two main parties' efforts to fast-track what is only the second amendment to the country's Constitution since it was drawn up in 1978.

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CiU congressional leader, Josep Antoni Duran Lleida argued that the haste imposed on a major change to the country's laws, and the two main parties' failure to consult beforehand with other political groups, had usurped the conventions of constitutional assembly. "If we weren't involved in the consensus nor the dialogue, then we are not involved in the vote," he said. "They [PP and PSOE] cooked it up, and let them eat it."

Despite murmurings of discount among the ranks of the Socialists about an amendment to the Constitution that the two main parties do not want to go a referendum, the only member on the Socialist benches who refused to toe the party line in the vote was former union leader Antonio Gutiérrez. PSOE congressional spokesman José Antonio Alonso said the "unsustainable" jump in Spain's risk premium in August justified the urgency of the initiative. Parties now have until 2pm on Thursday to proposal amendments to the draft bill.

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