ROME -- Italian president Giorgio Napolitano issued a sharp statement Wednesday asking whether Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government is "able to operate."

Napolitano spoke a day after an unprecedented parliamentary blunder, in which the majority coalition supporting the government failed to pass a routine budget item.

The head of state, who has the power to dissolve parliament, said the prime minister was "constitutionally responsible to provide a credible response to the question of whether the government is able to operate with the constant cohesion necessary to guarantee absolutely necessary obligations."

Napolitano noted that "until now" he had been impartial in his views of how the government had maintained its hold on power through a series of confidence votes.

In the Italian system, a prime minister tells the president of the republic when he no longer has a majority to govern, and the head of state decides whether a new government can be formed or whether early elections should be held.

The prime minister may hold another confidence vote as early as Wednesday, according to some of his senior party leaders.

Berlusconi, who was in the chamber late Tuesday when the voting tally was released, was visibly stunned, and opposition lawmakers chanted demands that he resign.

Deputies fell one vote short of the majority required to approve the "rendiconto" for 2010, a bureaucratic document reviewing last year's public finances.

Governmental failure to muster a majority for such a standard item is unprecedented in Italy, according to Gianfranco Fini, the speaker of the lower house.

Fini was a longtime ally of Berlusconi and often deemed his likely heir until the two fell out a year ago. Fini loyalists left the majority, prompting Berlusconi to recruit new members to restore an increasingly shaky hold on power.

"A government that can't approve its finances for the previous year can hardly approve a budget for the next one," Pierluigi Bersani, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency. "Berlusconi needs to realize it's time to visit the head of state."

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